We’ve all heard someone describe a cool new gadget as “the best thing since sliced bread,” but it might surprise you to know that machine-sliced bread has been available on store shelves for less than a century.

Ingenious inventions like that make life easier, tastier and sometimes even more fun, but we often don’t stop to think who or where these bright ideas came from. As Black History Month draws to a close, let’s look at a few members of the Black Inventors Hall of Fame and others and their inventions, many of which we can’t imagine life without. These innovations play a large part in making the promotional products industry what it is today, and several are fixtures in the promo merchandise market in their own right.

Tasty Treats

George Washington Carver has long been celebrated for developing hundreds of uses for the humble peanut, but have you heard of Edmond Albius, George Crum or Norbert Rilleux?

Look up “most popular ice cream flavor” and vanilla tops most polls. Next time you enjoy vanilla ice cream or a delicious pound cake, consider that in 1841, a 12-year-old enslaved boy named Edmond Albius invented the pollination technique that made vanilla widely available. His method is still in use today.

It may be more myth than fact, but chef George Speck Crum is said to have invented potato chips. According to an MIT blog post, Crum was the son of an African American father and Native American mother who developed the thin, crispy snack. In the summer of 1853, he was working as a chef at a resort in Saratoga Springs where thick-cut French-fried potatoes were a favorite. As the story goes, one customer complained that they were too thick and sent them back, so Crum sliced the potatoes as thinly as he possibly could before frying them. Yum! He went on to open his own successful restaurant.

Norbert Rillieux invented the multiple-effect evaporator in 1881. His machine enabled the production of higher-quality sugar at a lower cost, paving the way for mass-market candy and confections. The American Chemical Society says his invention “is widely recognized as the best method for lowering the temperature of all industrial evaporation and for saving large quantities of fuel,” making it an important development for industry in general.

ICYMI: Three Ways Black Business Owners Used Promo During Jim Crow

Much more recently, Denise Woodard founded Partake Foods, an allergy-friendly line of sweet treats and baking mixes, in 2016 after her daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. Food allergies affect 1 in 13 children in the U.S., and Black children are at higher risk. Woodard also founded an annual fellowship program that mentors students at historically Black colleges and universities and helps them secure internships and jobs.

Tools & Technology

Serving up goodies like cookies and ice cream requires the right tools for the job. In 1891, Anna Mangin designed and patented an improved pastry fork, and its unique features would influence the design of future pie spatulas, pastry forks and household spatulas. Mangin’s useful utensil made enough of a splash that it was featured at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.

A few years later, Alfred Cralle invented the ice cream scoop after he noticed his fellow drugstore employees struggling to place scoops of ice cream on cones. Cralle created the “ice cream mold and disher,” an all-in-one hand tool, for which he received a federal patent in 1897.

Gladys West
, an expert mathematician and computer programmer, worked with the U.S. Navy, leading a research team that developed the satellite technology that makes GPS possible. Writing for Northrup Grumman, Swapna Krishna explains that it’s very hard to accurately determine not only the shape of the constantly moving Earth but even more to pinpoint the precise location of anything on it, which is why West’s contributions were revolutionary.

              RELATED: Everyday Promo Products With Black Inventors

Toys & Games

Many inventors have developed products using their professional scientific or mechanical expertise to solve a problem. Others were simply exploring the possibilities and stumbled on something fun.

George Franklin Grant, a dentist and Harvard University’s first Black faculty member, invented the golf tee. Grant was famed for his skill in treating cleft palates with a prosthetic device he invented and patented – but he also loved playing golf. Frustrated by having to use wet sand to set up his strokes, Grant fashioned (and patented) a wooden tee in 1899. Unlike his dental invention, however, he didn’t bring his tee to market but had a small supply made for himself and his friends. In 1991, the U.S. Golf Association formally acknowledged Grant as the original inventor of the golf tee.

Industrial designer Charles Harrison transformed the View-Master from a heavy handheld photo viewer to a colorful, lightweight children’s toy in the mid-20th century. Harrison designed hundreds of other products for Sears, breaking down racial barriers along the way. The View-Master was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999, and Harrison was the first Black recipient of the National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in 2008.

Lonnie Johnson, an Air Force veteran and NASA engineer, invented the Super Soaker, a high-powered water gun, in 1982. It’s only one of his more than 100 U.S. patents, which include other toys as well as batteries and consumer products, and sales of the toys alone have grossed more than $1 billion. Johnson continues to innovate through his company Johnson Research & Development to explore new battery and clean energy technologies. He also established the Johnson STEM Activity Center, which introduces students from diverse and underserved communities to science, technology, engineering and math to encourage future generations of inventors and entrepreneurs.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Mickey Factz (@mickey.factz)