Celebrating Black Scientific Achievements

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Op-Ed: On Science

Without slavery and colonial subjugation, it is clear that Africa's story of scientific innovation and technological advancement would have been different today.

Science and technology is a powerful weapon for Africa to use to overcome to some of the negative perceptions of Africa. During slavery and the colonial era, most Black people were denied formal education and in fact many laws were passed to suppress the academic advancement of Blacks both in Africa and the Americas.

Blacks had limited access to mainstream, quality education and university training. This meant that, for the most part, Blacks were shut out of professional occupations and confined to working in industries deemed acceptable for them, such as domestic services, labor on farms and plantations.

Against all odds, a small number of exceptionally talented Blacks were able to obtain an education and, through their life's work, made significant contributions to the scientific and technological advancement of most developed countries today.
Most African scientists who became well known for their intellect and ingenuity had their innovations stolen by whites who later gained prominence for innovations which were never theirs.

Despite the hijacking of their fame and innovations by racist whites who never thought that Africans could make discoveries that could prove to be useful to mankind, the truth is emerging about the achievements of Black scientists who never made it to most European history books.

These early African scientists had the unmistakable stamp of genius which has made it very difficult to erase the quality of their works and philosophy into the dustbin of history.

"The quality of their works and philosophy still astonishes the world. Since in a world dominated by slavers and colonialists, the occurrence of high material or intellectual value in Africa is a racial taboo, questions that would ordinarily require research and accurate reporting were turned into matters of furious controversy," wrote Ayi Kwei Armah in article in 2006, demonstrating that Ancient Egypt's achievements were African.

Here are some other neglected and underreported achievements by Black scientists and inventors, both at home and abroad: Because of racism, Mary Seacole lost the honor of the best nurse during the Crimea War in Europe to Florence Nightingale. Seacole was a pioneering Black nurse and care-giver who helped wounded soldiers during the Crimean war of the 1850s. Because of prejudice, the Jamaican born nurse's fame was lavishly poured on Nightingale, whom even Africans today are forced to hero worship her in the nurses profession.

The “Father of the Internet� is African. Nigerian-born computer scientist and Internet pioneer, Phillip Emeagwali was voted Africa's greatest scientist by the New African magazine for his work on the supercomputer development. Emeagwali designed the program and formula for the fastest computer on earth, the Connection Machine. He designed the system of parallel computers that are used by all search engines, for example Yahoo or Google. After his discoveries, various supercomputers have been developed which perform computations far faster and cheaper as the inevitable result of his innovation and improvement in programming techniques.

Ghanaian scientist and mathematician Prof. Francis Kofi Allotey has also made immense contribution to science for his The Allotey Formalism—a technique used to determine matter in outer space.

Renowned Zimbabwe biochemist Prof. Christopher Chetsanga discovered two enzymes involved in the repair of damaged DNA. His scientific achievements included the discovery of: Formamido-pyrimidine DNA glycosylase that removes damaged 7-methylguanine from DNA (1979).

DNA cyclase that recluses imidazole rings of guanine and adenine damaged by x-irradiation (1983). Another well known Zimbabwean industrial chemist Dr. Robson Mafoti made a breakthrough and designed fascia material which was later used successfully by leading American motor companies such as GM, Chrysler and Ford. This became his first patent and one of his most prized and enduring innovations. He holds more than 13 United States patents for his inventions in the field of paints, plastics, decorative surfaces, sealants and adhesives.

The overall contributions of Blacks to science and invention is so extensive that it is not possible to live a full day in any part of the United States, Britain and western Europe and the world over without reaping the benefits of their contributions.
Benjamin Banneker an African-American produced the first clock ever built in the United States, in 1753. Banneker's clock kept perfect time, striking every hour for more than 40 years. People came from all over the country to see this clock.

Another Black man, John J. Stanard, of Newark, New Jersey, was awarded the first patent for the refrigerator in the US on October 2, 1890 while Sarah Boone, a Black female inventor was awarded a patent for designing the ironing board in 1892.

Lewis Howard Latimer was a major contributor to the invention of the light bulb and all of its uses. In 1881, Latimer invented a carbon filament for light bulbs, without which bulbs could not emit light and would not have the great commercial use that they have today. In 1876, Latimer met Alexander Graham Bell. Some say it was Latimer who created the drawings and prepared the application for the telephone patents of A. Bell.

Thomas J Martin, a Black inventor, was awarded a patent for the fire extinguisher on March 26, 1872 while William B. Purvis, of Philadelphia, invented a machine for making Paper Bags in 1882.
Purvis also received three patents, one on a fountain pen, another on a Magnetic Car-Balancing device and another for a Cutter for Roll Holders.

There are thousands of equally talented and inventive Blacks working in laboratories today across the African continent and in the Diaspora. Many of their innovations and creations have not been captured in the mainstream media. There is need to document achievements by African scientists so as to ensure that their contributions don't remain anonymous.

Tsiko is The Black Star News' Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare. 

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