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Black Pioneers of Science and Invention / by Louis Haber


Title:  Black Pioneers of Science and Invention
Author:  Louis Haber
Publisher:  Sandpiper
ISBN:  978-0152085667
Year:  2007 (paperback)

Concepts: innovation, invention, education and training, discrimination

Review: Early contributors to scientific and industrial progress faced numerous obstacles such as scarce financial resources and slow communication options as they designed new machines, medicines, procedures, and equipment. Black Americans saw additional adversity in the form of discrimination and legal restrictions by race as they engaged in their work. Louis Haber carefully documents the challenges and accomplishments experienced by fourteen black American inventors as they made important contributions to science and industry during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

First featured in this book is Benjamin Banneker, a mathematician and surveyor who made the first clock ever built in the United States, prepared a set of almanacs based on his own calculations that became a household staple, and completed the surveying plans for the new capital of Washington DC. Subsequent chapters cover Norbert Rillieux, who invented the vacuum pan evaporator to make white refined sugar crystals; Jan Earnst Matzeliger, who designed and built the first shoe-lasting machine that revolutionized the automation of shoe production; and Elijah McCoy (the person behind the expression "It's the real McCoy), whose inventions in lubricating machinery were used on all railroads in the western U.S. and on all steamers on the Great Lakes.

The book further includes chapters covering the contributions of Granville T. Woods (the "Black Edison" who made numerous discoveries related to electrical systems and devices, such as railway telegraphy); Lewis Howard Latimer (whose work led to innovations in the electric lamp industry); Garrett A. Morgan (who invented the gas mask and traffic light); George Washington Carver (the most famous black American inventor who made revolutionary contributions in plant pathology and agriculture, including the research in crop rotation and the discovery of peanut products); Percy Lavon Julian (the "soybean chemist" whose discoveries in organic chemistry led to important pharmaceutical drugs such as physostigmine and cortisone); and Lloyd A. Hall (the innovative food chemist whose contributions in food technology led to the development of more nutritious and tastier foods).

The final four chapters describe the discoveries and innovations made by Ernest Everett Just, Daniel Hale Williams, Louis Tompkins Wright, and Charles Richard Drew. Just was a pioneer in zoology and marine biology who did important research on the meaning of life; Williams worked as a successful surgeon, hospital administrator, and teacher who performed the first open heart surgery; Wright was the first black physician to hold a number of important positions in the medical field and to make innovations in the use of antibiotics and medical devices such as the neck brace; and Drew's research led to life-saving developments in blood transfusions and the organization of blood banks.

The author has done a commendable job researching the personal backgrounds of these pioneers in science, medicine, and industry. Each of these men overcame enormous barriers due to discrimination, hostility, and legal restrictions because of their race. The reader is also provided with an excellent account of the impact that their innovations had on scientific and industrial progress, with details about patents, commendations, and publications. Because the author has focused only on men, the reader is left to wonder about the scientific contributions of black female Americans, a topic that would make an excellent topic of study and follow-up to this important and interesting book.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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