So blacks can invent after all?

Andrew Ose Phiri Book Review
THE book sleeve tells it all. A picture of Carver G. Washington and Marjorie Stewart Joyner, with a globe signifying not only the global presence of African peoples but the contributions responsible for world progress in technology. Washington, though born in slavery, is one of the world’s prolific inventors and became the first and greatest agricultural chemist, who single- handedly saved Southern USA from environmental waste by developing hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes and other plants.

He introduced an innovative method of crop rotation as well as the planting of legumes to enrich soils, and his expertise was sought by many governments, including even the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Black Inventors, Crafting Over 200 Years of Success is a groundbreaking book that highlights the inventions by people of African descent globally. Written by Keith C. Holmes, an African-American who painstakingly spent over 20 years researching and gathering information on thousands of inventions by black people from the year 1769 to 2007, the book is an inspiring must-read for Africans at home and in the Diaspora, if only to engender the self-confidence in African peoples necessary to reclaim the 21st century, especially in the crucial areas of science and technology.

It starts with the contributions of ancient black Africans who resided in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and their inventions and innovations in mining, agriculture, writing, architecture, animal husbandry, tool making, beverages, textiles, food processing, medicine, religion, social organisation, speech and material sciences, which laid the foundations of today’s science and technology.

This short chapter on ancient contributions left me hungry for more as the author employed very little narrative. It would have been enriched had the author included more materials, such as the impressive scientific traditions outlined in books such as Blacks in Science, edited by the veritable scholar Ivan van Sertima, Cheikh Anta Diop’s Civilisation or Barbarism and Hunter Havelin Adams’ African and African-American Contributions to Science and Technology.

However, one remarkable aspect of Holmes’ book that sets it apart from previous books on black inventors is its comprehensive global coverage. Detailed in this book are black inventors from diverse places, such as Russia, Australia, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean, and practically all European and African countries, as well as all the 50 states of the United States.

The Ghanaian Kofi Afolabi A. Makinwa, Holmes informs us, pioneered inventions in computers with over 50 domestic and foreign patents, mostly assigned to the American brand Phillips, while Samuel Ayodele Sangokoya has over 50 chemical processes patents assigned to Albamarle Corporation. Tisafaye Shifferaw is an Ethiopian inventor of exercise equipment.

Mark E. Dean, a US National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee, has over 200 domestic and foreign patents in computer technology, mostly assigned to IBM. Other African American inventors profiled include the more famous ones such as Jan Matzeliger, Elijah McCoy, Benjamin Banneker, William B. Purvis, Granville T. Woods, Norbert Rillieux, Lewis Latimer, Charles Drew, Percy Lavon Julian, James E. West, George Carruthers, Lonnie Johnson, Marc Hannah, David N. Crosthwait, Patricia Bath, Madame C.J. Walker, Lloyd Augustus Hall, Frederick McKinley Jones, Garret Morgan and many others whose inventions generate billions of dollars, span a broad spectrum and laid the foundations of some global industries.

Prolific black inventors in Europe covered in the book include Dr Fisseha Mekuria from Sweden, who is a co-inventor with some 20 patents in cell phone technology; Olukayode Anthony Ojo of The Netherlands, a co-inventor with some 38 patents and Dereck A. Adeyemi Palmer, Jacob Kwaku Boateng, Kunle Onabolu and Paul Kaine from the United Kingdom while France, Germany, Italy, Russia and other countries registered a number of black inventors.

In Australia, David Unaipon, an indigenous scientist and statesman, has several inventions and his face appears on the Australian 50 dollar note.

Zambian patent holders listed in this book are Patrick Chilufya Chimfwembe, a Canadian-based co-inventor with some 16 patents in communication technologies. The book also outlines design patents, trademarks and innovators in the video game and film industry such as Todd Quincy Jefferson, as well as the trademarks of media, sport and music legends such as James Brown, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Whitney Houston among others.

The works of black inventors have helped universities and corporations such as AT&T, British Telecommunications, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, Advanced Micro-Devices Inc and IBM, and a host of other corporations including entertainment and media houses with multi-dollar businesses.

New inventions

Since black inventors will never cease to be born, Black Inventors cannot be exhaustive in its coverage. It is remarkable to note that Holmes has continued working on such projects and is currently working on a further book that will explain the impact of the work of black inventors globally.

Cases to point out include Cyprian Emeka Uzoh, now a prolific inventor who has over 170 patents and was voted US inventor of the year in 2006. Jesse Eugene Russell is a technology thought- leader with some 75 patents and he is at the core of wireless communication technology.

Dr Sandra Baylor Johnson is a distinguished inventor and a former IBM employee who has over 40 US patents. An electrical engineer, she worked among other areas on parallel computing projects and on IBM’s Deep Blue chess-playing machine.

The American teenage inventor Tony Hansberry II, now pursuing medical studies, is the creator of a novel surgical technique for performing hysterectomy while two African students, Gerard Niyondiko and Moctar Dembele, developed from herbs a cheap mosquito repelling soap called the Faso Soap.

The first European-based scientist to win the US-based Society of Manufacturing Engineers Total Excellence Award, in 2006, was the Nigerian proven leader and innovator in electronics manufacturing, Prof. Ndy Ekere, an electric and electronic engineer and head of the Electronics Manufacturing Research Group at the University of Greenwich in the UK.

Dr Ernest Simo, a Cameroonian, pioneered the development of some leading information communication technologies in the world today. These are the Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) that he developed together with Hughes Network Systems of USA in 1983, and work in the Low Earth Orbiting satellite system (LEOs) and Personal Communications Services (PCS) fields. He also pioneered the Code Division Multiple Access technology used in cell phones throughout the Americas and Asia, competing with the GSM used in Europe and Africa, and is now working on third generation wireless systems and All-IP based Wireless Networks.

The African continent has recently pioneered groundbreaking innovations and inventions. Arthur Zang, a Cameroonian engineer, invented a cardiopad, a medical tablet. The cardiopad enables heart examinations to be carried out remotely and is a first in African and global tele-medicine. Ivorian Yapi N’chor Didier was described as “a living god of IT” by an American IT expert because of his revolutionary IT devices such as the Mystery Mouse 7, a smart multi-use mouse, and what could ultimately help reduce piracy, the DVD Dead Cryptor. A US-based Zambian student, Patrick Kwete, developed medical software called ExpatCare, which is useful in providing personalised medicine to take into account side-effects and possible complications before administering medicine.

In South Africa, Ludwick Marishane developed an anti-germicidal lotion which when applied on the skin allows one to be cleaned without water. Marishane’s DryBath has applications in long-distance travel and military endeavours, and won him the 2011 Global Student Entrepreneur Award.

An Ethiopian scientist based in the US, Sossina Haile, is the developer of a reactor that mimics plant life in making fuel from water and carbon dioxide in sunlight, thus promising a renewable energy source. The Togolese Dr Victor Agbegnenou patented in 2004, the Polyvalent Wireless Communication System, a kind of fibre optics in the air, a communication system that promises to narrow the digital divide and reduce the cost of high speed internet, telephony and television.

Bertil Nahum, developer of the Rosa and Brigit medical robots, was recently voted the world’s fourth most revolutionary entrepreneur after three Americans, namely Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg and David Cameron.

In DRCongo, Therese Inza, an engineer and president of an association of female inventors, developed a solar-powered humanoid Robocop that merges the role of human traffic officers and traffic lights to control traffic in Kinshasa and can also speak and report traffic offenders.

Verone Mankou is a Congolese engineer and entrepreneur who designed the first African iPad, and the Way-C touchpad, as well as the Elikia smartphone. Other ICT innovators in Africa include Saheed Adepoju of Encipher Limited, responsible for developing Inye-1 and 2 tablet computers. Dr Ndubuisi Ekekwe holds a US patent on a micro-chip used in minimally invasive surgical robots and has other patents pending.

The list of African inventors is growing worldwide. The website has an impressive list of African scientists and inventors and is continually being updated.

Andrew Ose Phiri is an architect and author of African Scientific Legacy. This article is reproduced from New African magazine.

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