CHA Celebrates Black History Month

February 01, 2022

In honor of Black History Month, CHA celebrates Black engineers and innovators whose impactful contributions have advanced the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. Below is a small sampling of the countless inventions and achievements in modern history.

Lewis Howard Latimer (September 4, 1848 – December 11, 1928)

Lewis Howard Latimer was a distinguished engineer, inventor, and patent draftsman who became best known for helping establish the electric light industry. Following the Civil War, Latimer was employed as an office boy at a patent firm, where he taught himself mechanical drawing. Soon employed as a draftsman, Latimer notably helped draft drawings necessary to patent Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876. In 1880, he was hired by the U.S. Electric Company owned by Hiram Maxim, whose chief rival was Thomas Edison. Latimer became fascinated with incandescent lighting and sought to improve the lifespan of Edison’s light bulb. He devised a durable carbon filament that did not burn out after a few days like the one in Edison’s bulb. His invention made the light bulb far more affordable and practical, which is largely why the bulb became widespread. Later, employed as the only African American member of Thomas Edison’s “Edison’s Pioneers,” Latimer defended the light bulb design in court and helped champion its widespread adoption.

Elijah McCoy (May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929)

Elijah McCoy was a mechanical engineer and prolific inventor who filed for 57 U.S. patents, mostly related to trains. McCoy studied mechanical engineering while attending school in Scotland, when he was 15. In 1866, he returned home to Michigan and was hired as a railroad fireman tasked with lubricating the train engine and shoveling coal into the firebox. Early steam locomotives had to be stopped each time the engine needed lubrication. McCoy invented an automatic lubricating device that could keep the engine parts slick without needing to stop the train. His “oil-drip cup” was highly effective and simple to use, saving time and money. As McCoy refined his device, many cheap copycat devices sprung up on the market. The phrase “the real McCoy” is thought to have originated from wary buyers inquiring if the oil-drip cup was genuine by asking if it was “the real McCoy.”

Marie Van Brittan Brown (October 22, 1922 – February 2, 1999)

Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the first home security system while working as a nurse in the 1960s. She and her husband, Albert Brown, worked odd hours and wanted to stay aware of people approaching their home in Queens, New York City. In 1966, Brown filed a patent for a home security system—one of the first closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems. This system consisted of a camera that moved across three peepholes positioned to see people of various heights. The camera sent images to a monitor inside the home, and a two-way microphone allowed for speaking with the visitor. If it was someone she knew, she could unlock the door via remote control. Or, if needed, she could push an alarm button to trigger a call to the police. Many features found in modern security systems we enjoy today owe thanks to Brown’s design.

Walt W. Braithwaite (January 1945 –)

Walt W. Braithwaite is an engineer and computer scientist who revolutionized aerospace design by transitioning the drafting process from pen-and-paper to digital. After earning his bachelor’s degree in engineering from the American Institute of Engineering and Technology, Braithwaite started working for The Boeing Company in 1966. At the time, airplanes were designed primarily by hand, which was expensive and time-consuming. In the 1970s, Braithwaite pioneered using computer-assisted design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technology to accelerate and enhance the design process. He also led the creation of the Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES), which established an industry standard for sharing proprietary CAD/CAM data between systems. Today, planes are designed entirely by computer, largely thanks to Braithwaite’s outstanding achievements. He has received many awards and honors throughout his life and spent much time supporting African American academic and business institutions. In 2003, he retired as Boeing’s highest-ranking Black executive.