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Cheikh Anta Diop as a university student

5 groundbreaking Black scientists and inventors

Image: Cheikh Anta Diop | Public Domain

In this guest article, Tony Warner, the founder of Black History Walks and author of Black History Walks Volume 1, explores the amazing Black scientists and inventors who have never gotten the recognition they deserve.

1. Cheikh Anta Diop

We start our journey into Black science and invention on the Embankment, near Temple, with the obelisk mistakenly called 'Cleopatra’s Needle'. Cleopatra was not born when this structure was designed and engineered 3,500 years ago. The obelisk was carved out of granite mountain, weighs 180 tonnes and is 68 feet tall. It’s an incredible scientific achievement considering it was created in Africa, 1,500 years before London was founded by the Romans. The British took it from Egypt and in 1878 erected it in London. It was commissioned by Pharoah Thutmose III.

Some scientists will argue that the ancient Egyptians were not Black.

Cheikh Anta Diop, from Senegal, in his book African Origin of Civilization (1974), used bone analysis, blood groups, linguistic history, melanin dosage tests and testimony from numerous Greek historians like Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus to prove that ancient Egyptians looked like ancient Ethiopians. They were black-skinned, with woolly (afro) type hair, had typical African skeletons and a high dosage of melanin not found in Europeans.

At the UNESCO International Conference on Egyptology in Cairo in 1974, Dr Diop and Professor Theophile Obenga of Congo challenged 18 Eurocentric scholars and scientifically proved against all objections that the ancient Egyptians were Black. This was reported and can still be found in UNESCO’s 1974 report, 'The Peopling of ancient Egypt and the deciphering of Meroitic script'.

2. Moses West

The name Moses is automatically associated with the Nile Valley and water. In 2023, Moses West, an African American, created a machine that makes water out of thin air. The concept is based on the fact that if you pour a cold liquid into a glass on a hot day, within minutes that glass will be covered with beads of water condensation.

Mr West, founder of the Moses West Foundation, invented a technique which mimics and magnifies that process. This means that he can park his machine in a field, switch it on and within hours have drinkable water gushing into containers. He already has contracts with the US military and has operated in Haiti, Puerto Rico and Flint, Michigan, where natural and manmade disasters have occurred. The global applications of his invention are endlessly inspiring considering climate change and water shortages.

3. Jan Matzlinger

Jan Matzlinger from Suriname is not a household name, although he definitely should be. Anyone who has ever worn a pair of shoes has him to thank for the automatic ‘shoe lasting process’, which makes shoes easier and faster to produce. Prior to his invention, shoes were made by hand in a laborious and time-consuming process. Apart from cutting and shaping the leather, the sole had to be sewn onto the upper parts of the shoe. This process was known as ‘lasting’ and meant it could take a shoemaker a whole day to produce 40 pairs.

In 1883, after years of prototypes, Jan created an automatic shoe-lasting machine that could produce 150 pairs a day. This revolutionised shoemaking, established a manufacturing industry, and made shoes faster and much cheaper to produce.

His template was used by all the big shoe manufacturers and still is to this day. Jan died aged 37 due to ill health directly caused by his efforts to produce the machine. He was never given the credit or money he deserved.

4. Thato Kgatlhanye

Thato Kgatlhanye is a young South African woman whose invention could change the world. She invented a school bag that stores sunlight shone on it when the child wearing it walks to and from school. A special removable disk in the bag can be placed on a surface where it shines the light during the night. This illumination can then be used for homework or cooking in areas where there is little or no electricity.

Due to the legacy of colonisation, there are many areas in the world where millions of people do not have direct access to electricity. This leads to them using candles or paraffin which can cause accidents or injury. Additionally, Kgatlhayne’s invention is made from discarded plastic bags, making it very sustainable.

5. Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks is not an inventor or scientist, but her physical existence has benefitted millions of people. In 1951, on a visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, her cells were harvested without her consent and then later used in thousands of medical experiments to create cures for diseases like polio. Additionally, thousands of patients have been treated using the HeLa cells (named after the initials of her first and last name) and billions of pounds generated for medical corporations, none of which got to the Lacks family.

In 2010, Rebecca Skloot published her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, revealing details of exploitation unknown to the family. Oprah Winfrey starred in the movie adaptation of the book in 2017.

In 2021, the Lacks family sued Thermo Fisher Scientific for the massive profits they made from their relative’s body. The company settled for an undisclosed sum in 2023.

According to the World Health Organisation: ‘Henrietta Lacks' cells have paved the way for advancements from HPV and polio vaccines to medications for HIV/AIDS and breakthroughs including in vitro fertilization. In addition, HeLa cells are currently used in vital research for COVID-19 response efforts.’