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Notable scientists: Breaking barriers

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(CNN) -- From space exploration to long-lasting light bulbs, black men and women of science have significantly altered American society. The following is just a sampling of African Americans who have saved and changed lives by breaking new ground in science and technology.

Benjamin Banneker
George Washington may have been the father of the United States, but the United States can thank Benjamin Banneker for making the city that bears Washington's name. The son of two freed slaves, Banneker grew up in 18th century Maryland on a tobacco farm, where he created an irrigation system that allowed crops to thrive in dry and wet weather. He became a well-known expert in watch-making and repair, astronomy and several other fields. Around the turn of the century, at Thomas Jefferson's request, Banneker joined the planning committee assigned to develop the nation's new capital, Washington, D.C. When architect Pierre L'Enfant left the project (with all his plans) in a huff, Banneker managed to recreate the complete layout from memory.

Ben Carson
Dr. Ben Carson captured worldwide media attention in 1987 for the successful separation of conjoined twins who shared a portion of the same brain. Since then, Carson's work in pediatric medicine contributed to the development of new technologies and made him one of the most notable African-American neurosurgeons in the United States. In addition to his medical career, he has also devoted himself to giving back to the community by encouraging strong morals and education.

George Washington Carver
In 1897, George Washington Carver was named director of agriculture for the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes, an all-black school and research institution in Alabama. In a short time, Carver would revolutionize farming and the South. Carver's system of crop rotation -- growing different plants each year on one plot of land -- helped revitalize poor soil. But this was just the start, as Carver invented or bettered dozens of products including adhesives, bleach, buttermilk, cheese, ink, chili sauce, linoleum, mayonnaise, shampoo, shoe polish, shaving cream and peanut butter.

Mae Jemison
A medical doctor, astronaut, philanthropist, activist and businesswoman, Dr. Mae Jemison is a 21st-century Renaissance woman. She is best known as the first black woman to go into space, doing so on the space shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992. Jemison is also a social scientist and an advocate for public education and the developing world. After practicing medicine for nearly three years in west Africa, she founded The Jemison Group to research, develop and implement advanced technologies.

Marjorie Stewart Joyner
Before Marjorie Stewart Joyner, every day was basically a bad hair day for millions of women. Her design and patent for a "permanent wave machine" -- a mechanism that set hair in place for days, weeks, sometimes months -- changed cosmetology forever. Born in 1896 in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, Hoyner moved to Chicago, Illinois, to study cosmetology. Hoping to find a way to ensure that a woman's hair looked fresh and vibrant for days after it was cut, Joyner created a dome-like device that sent electrical current to sections of the hair, thus setting it in place for extended periods of time. In 1926, she became the first African-American woman to receive a patent for her invention.

Lewis Latimer
Thomas Edison is widely credited with inventing the electrical light bulb. But few people know that Edison's first bulbs, which relied on bamboo, only lasted for around 30 hours. Long-lasting bulbs, using carbon filaments, were the brainchild of African-American inventor Lewis Latimer and his partner, Joseph V. Nichols. Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1848, Latimer fought briefly in the Civil War before working as an errand boy for a law firm specializing in patents. His skills were quickly recognized and Latimer was soon working with some of the world's most renowned inventors. Latimer helped Alexander Graham Bell draft the blueprints for the telephone, securing the patent hours before a rival inventor. He later joined Edison's team, where he and Nichols improved on Edison's invention and patented the incandescent light bulb with carbon filaments (and a process for manufacturing them) in 1891.

Elijah McCoy
Elijah McCoy made America's trains run faster, farther and more efficiently. McCoy invented a device that allowed trains to be oiled automatically while running. His invention made trains safer and oiling the engines easier, improving the efficiency of America's entire transportation system. McCoy eventually patented his invention in 1872. While many train officials were reluctant to utilize the invention of a black man, many realized that nothing worked as well as the "real McCoy." Not only did McCoy create this catchphrase, he had 57 other inventions (including patents for a lawn sprinkler and ironing board.)

Others who paved the way: Cultural pioneers | Arts innovators | Political and business leaders


Mae Jemison is a 21st century Renaissance woman -- she is an astronaut, medical doctor, philanthropist and businesswoman.


• Explainer: By the numbers
• I-Report: Black in America
• Timeline: Civil rights struggle


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