Innovation

Honoring Black History Month

From latex to Super Soakers, meet some of the Black inventors, scientists, and designers who pioneered advancements in plastics to make our lives better.

Share:

While the importance of African American contributions to society is ever-present, Black History Month is an annual opportunity for people of all races and backgrounds to celebrate and learn more about those achievements. Black history permeates our everyday lives, and we’re highlighting a handful of both famous and little-known figures in history who deserve to be celebrated for their contributions to modern society.

Meet some of the Black inventors, scientists and designers who pioneered plastics advancements – from latex to Super Soakers – that make our lives better.

George Washington Carver (1864-1943)

More than “The Peanut Man”

George Washington Carver was one of the most prominent agricultural scientists of the 20th century. Born an enslaved person on a Missouri farm in the 1860’s, Carver became the first Black student and the first Black faculty member at what is now Iowa State University. At the urging of Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, Carver moved to Alabama to serve as the school’s director of agriculture in 1896. During his 47 years there, Carver’s research flourished, and he pioneered agricultural advancements and experiments to help improve the lives of impoverished Black farmers by increasing the profitability of sweet potatoes, peanuts, and soybeans.

From the peanut – primarily used at that time to feed livestock – he developed hundreds of products, including plastics, synthetic rubber and paper.  Carver also invented a process for producing paints and stains from soybeans, for which three separate patents were issued.  Among Carver’s many synthetic discoveries: adhesives, axle grease, bleach, chili sauce, creosote, dyes, flour, instant coffee, shoe polish, linoleum, and more. Upon his death, Carver contributed his life savings to establish a research institute at Tuskegee. His birthplace was declared a national monument in 1953, and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.

Mary Elliot Hill (1907-1969)

Inspiring a new generation of educators and chemists

Mary Elliott Hill was one of the earliest recorded African American women to earn a master’s in chemistry and is famed as an analytical chemist and teacher specializing in ultra-violet light. In collaboration with her husband, Carl Hill, her work led to the development of new methods crucial in supporting polymer chemistry and plastics development.

The pair used specialized chemical reactions to form ketenes, highly reactive compounds used in the formation of esters, amides, and other challenging compounds. Throughout Hill’s career, she taught high school– and college-level chemistry. In 1951, she became the head of the chemistry department at Tennessee State University, eventually leaving to become a professor at Kentucky State College when her husband was named the school’s president. Hill instituted student chapters of the American Chemical Society at several historically Black colleges and universities, and many of her students went on to become chemistry professors themselves.

Walter Lincoln Hawkins (1911-1992)

Laying ground for modern telecommunications

Walter L. Hawkins was a widely regarded American chemist, engineer, and pioneer of polymer science. Among his numerous technical achievements, Hawkins designed a lab test to predict a plastic surface’s durability using spectroscopy, the study of absorption and emission of light by matter. Hawkins also greatly extended the life span of plastic substances by creating new techniques for recycling and reusing plastics. His most prominent achievement was a plastic cable sheath that helped make universal telephone service possible; in comparison to the leading sheathing at the time, Hawkins’ advent was lightweight and less expensive. Hawkins’ work improved the lifespan of telephone cables up to 70 years and led to the expansion of telecommunications worldwide. This sheath was one of the dozens of products patented by Hawkins, who was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2010.

Charles Harrison (1931-2018)

Reimagining modern household maintenance

Charles Harrison, an industrial products designer, was the first African American executive to work at Sears, Roebuck and Co., starting in 1961. Harrison was involved in designing hundreds of consumer products, including sewing machines, stereos, fondue pots and more, but he changed the landscape of household maintenance with his most famed product design – the plastic garbage can.

Until the early 1960s, garbage cans were made of metal and, consequentially, prone to rust and noise when dragged from the curb. In 1963, Harrison set out to make those cans sleeker, durable, and easier to manage and his redesign –  a plastic garbage cans with wheels – did just that. Harrison sought to make consumer products suitable for mass-production, aesthetically pleasing, and conducive to comfortable living. Today, the trash receptacle he envisioned is on every driveway. Harrison also reimagined other everyday objects, including the plastic see-through measuring cup.

Bettye Washington Greene (1935-1995)

Shattering the latex ceiling

Bettye Washington Greene, an industrial research chemist, was the first African American female Ph.D. chemist employed to work in a professional position at the Dow Chemical Company. Her career at Dow began in 1965 and, in 1975, Dow promoted Greene to the position of senior research specialist. She published several papers related to developing polymers, including studying different properties that lend to latex’s redispersement. Among Greene’s many accomplishments are several patents for various latex modifications, including novel adhesives in composite latex polymer sheets with phosphorus surface groups—the basis for latex-coated adhesive tape. Greene retired from Dow Chemical in 1990.

 Lonnie Johnson (1949 – Present)

Redefining summer fun

Lonnie Johnson is an aerospace engineer and inventor whose career includes time in the U.S. Air Force and a twelve-year stint at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the Air Force, Johnson worked to develop a heat pump, and his research led him to the idea of a safe, pressurized water gun. He combined PVC pipe, plexiglass, and an empty soda bottle and conceived the Super Soaker, initially called the “Power Drencher,” forever changing the meaning of ‘summer fun.’

Through the years, Johnson’s water gun has enamored kids and adults alike, with more than 200 million units sold to date and, in 2017, Forbes reported that it had earned over $1 billion in retail sales. Today, the Super Soaker has a place in the National Toy Hall of Fame – cementing it in pop culture as one of the most beloved toys of our generation, and Johnson was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015 – cementing his place as a groundbreaking inventor.

Want to do more?

Still have questions?