When we think of great innovators, the faces are usually the same—typically, white males, such as Edison, Tesla, Jobs, Musk. . .
But history teaches us that while African Americans and women are historically underrepresented among the ranks of innovators and inventors, they are not absent. These unsung individuals often prevailed against extreme odds to make their visions of change a reality.
Black History Month presents the perfect opportunity to highlight one such innovator—an African American woman who, out of a desire to keep her family safe, developed a system that presaged the technologies which help ensure the security of millions of Americans today. Indeed, no less an authority than the Security Industry Association recognizes Marie Van Brittan Brown as the inventor of the first modern home security system.
In 1966, Brown was a 43-year-old working mother of two children living in the Queens, New York, community of Jamaica. Her husband Albert, an electronics technician, worked nights, so Brown—a nurse—often found herself alone at home with her children. At the time, Jamaica’s crime rate was spiraling and the local police response time was often slow.
Like all good, would-be innovators, Brown brainstormed various solutions until she found one that seemed promising.
Right here, I should note that Brown met the first precondition for the Innovation Mindset: She observed a significant need—in her case, that basic need of personal safety for herself and her family—and was motivated to find a solution.
Like all good, would-be innovators, Brown brainstormed various solutions until she found one that seemed promising. She set up a camera that adjusted to the three peepholes she had carved out in her apartment’s front door (set up at different heights to accommodate her children). She then hooked up a wireless television and radio system that could stream video to any TV in the house. She also created a two-way microphone to enable communication between the family and the person at the door. In addition, a remote control option allowed her to lock or unlock the door from a distance.
To create what we call her minimal viable product (MVP), the next step in the innovation process, Brown—with Albert’s help—electronically wired the system and tested it in their apartment. While identification of the intruder worked well, she realized during their experiments that a faster way to summon help was needed—and she found it with the development of an emergency button that could send an instant alarm to police or security.
The system worked. It worked so well that, later that year, they filed a patent, which was granted 3 years later in December 1969. That same month, the New York Times published an article about their invention, noting that “the equipment is not in production, but the Browns hope to interest manufacturers and home builders.”
Marie Van Brittan Brown’s solution was the precursor to modern home security systems…
While that never happened because the technology required was too expensive at the time, the Browns’ invention ensured them a place in the history of technology. According to a 2021 Smithsonian article on the Browns, their predecessor to today’s security systems has been cited in thirty-five U.S. patents.
Fifty years later, home security is a billion-dollar industry sector. Marie Van Brittan Brown’s solution was the precursor to modern home security systems and laid the foundation for video monitoring, remote-controlled door locks, push-button alarm triggers, instant messaging to police, and two-way voice communication. Brown, who died in 1999, was eventually recognized by the U.S. National Scientists Committee for her work.
In addition to the challenges that face all of those who seek to implement new solutions in our world, Brown had two disadvantages: She was a woman and an African American in a pursuit that has historically seemed the province of white men. As a woman who has worked in new product development my entire career, I have a small sense of the obstacles she must have faced. Half a century later, things are changing, but not fast enough—a point I reinforce in my book, and in my work as a professor and mentor to many young female innovators.
As Marie Van Brittan Brown reminds us, the Innovation Mindset is not limited by gender or race. . . or anything else, for that matter, aside from the determination and passion to make the world a better place.
Lorraine Marchand is general manager of life sciences at IBM Watson Health and has three decades of experience in new product development. She is author of The Innovation Mindset: Eight Essential Steps to Transform Any Industry, available August 2022.