Explore KY Innovators

For centuries, Kentucky’s lands have been home to generation after generation of artists, inventors, developers, politicians, activists, and all manner of creative people. Kentucky innovators have enriched their state, nation, and world with dazzling scientific advancements, progressive social policies, and invaluable new community resources. These brilliant individuals have come from every corner of the state—East, West, North, South, Central—and have persevered through poverty, tragedy, and racial and gender barriers to use their talents for the common good.

Martha Layne Collins, the first female governor of Kentucky, lead our state through the intense economic globalization of the 1980s. Amid anxieties that the state would lag behind, she once boldly claimed that “[Kentuckians] know we can compete with anyone… anywhere… anytime… and win.” Kentuckian after Kentuckian has proven her claim to be true time after time, and each time we “win,” it is not just a win for Kentucky, but for all.

The Kentucky Historical Markers Program, created and managed by the Kentucky Historical Society, remembers and honors thousands of people, places, and events that shaped history as we know it. Among these markers, many tell the stories of Kentuckians who turned opportunities into meaningful and lasting changes. These are the innovators featured on this tour.

Kentucky artists have achieved worldwide fame for their feats in all mediums. Woman sculptor Enid Yandell, raised by a single mother, worked her way towards a world-class education and created internationally known works that were displayed at the World’s Fair and still stand in parks and museums today. Effie Waller Smith, the daughter of formerly enslaved Black people, quietly wrote poetry in Pike County that she eventually published in volumes that sold nationally and won widespread praise. Ernest Hogan started out as a child performing in a circus in Bowling Green, and then went on to become the first Black man to produce and star in a Broadway musical. These artists, among many others, harnessed their creative talents to engender revolutionary changes in their fields.

Other Kentucky innovators gave the world their gifts as inventors. James Morrison Heady conquered both deafness and blindness to develop a diplograph that allowed blind people to write, along with several other inventions to advance accessibility. John Fitch designed the first functional steamboat, which allowed traders to deliver goods through strong upstream currents. Nathan B. Stubblefield, a farmer and backyard tinkerer who stopped his schooling at the age of fourteen, invented and patented the first wireless radio telephone. This Kentucky ingenuity remains a proud export of our state.

Some were social innovators, focusing their time and talents into creating whole communities to better the areas they lived in. Alice Lloyd founded a school, community center, and college in the Appalachian region of Knott County, which offered abundant educational opportunities and still educates students to this day. James Thomas Taylor, a Black real estate developer, carved out a suburban district in Louisville where Black families could achieve homes, businesses, and educations in a time when those opportunities were scarce. Businessman Alexander Alan Arthur founded the industrial boom town of Middlesboro in the frontier lands of the Cumberland Gap, creating economic opportunities for thousands of hardworking Kentuckians. These innovators helped build some of the most essential pieces of Kentuckian society and elevated the quality of life for multitudes of people.

The KY Innovators tour highlights the achievements of these outstanding and successful individuals, delving into the history and context of their lives and careers. Their stories are bound to inspire readers through tales of determination and passion, and teach that impactful change can grow from even the smallest of seeds planted in everyday encounters.
Take this tour to read about these sixteen remarkable Kentuckians. Enjoy their victories, learn from their setbacks, and celebrate their legacies of artistic, engineering, and social transformation.

Ora Frances Porter

Historical Marker #2149 recognizes Ora Frances Porter, an influential figure in Bowling Green’s African-American community, who was among the earliest registered nurses in Kentucky. Born in Butler County in 1880, Porter’s family moved to Bowling…

"Tommygun Inventor"

Historical Marker #1706 in Newport commemorates Brig. Gen. John T. Thompson, inventor of the Thompson submachine gun. Thompson was born in Newport on December 31, 1860. He grew up on various military posts where his father, Lieutenant Colonel…

Stubblefield Birthplace

Historical Marker #87 on the Murray State University campus remembers the life of inventor Nathan Beverly Stubblefield, who developed an early form of radio. The nineteenth century was a revolutionary time of invention, especially in the field of…

Steamboat Inventor

Historical Marker #944 in Bardstown (Nelson County) commemorates steamboat innovator John Fitch, whose pioneering work helped set the stage for a transportation revolution. Fitch was born on January 21, 1743, in Windsor, Connecticut. He first…

Famous Inventor, 1877-1963

Historical Marker #1493 in Paris highlights the accomplishments of American inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan, who was born the son of former slaves on March 4, 1877. Garrett Morgan grew up on the family farm while his father worked for the…

Mountain Vision

Historical Marker #832, located in Middlesboro, KY (Bell County) recalls the difficult work and community resilience that created an entirely new Appalachian town that still thrives today. Prior to 1886, the Yellow Creek Valley in Bell County’s…

Ernest Hogan

Historical Marker #2282, located in Bowling Green, KY (Warren County) honors the adventurous spirit and talented charisma of Black musician and comedian Ernest Hogan. Ernest Reuben Crowdus Jr. was born on April 17, 1865 in Bowling Green to Reuben…

Effie Waller Smith

Historical Marker #1959, located in Pikeville, Kentucky (Pike County) honors the rare artistry and incredible resilience of Black poet Effie Waller Smith. Waller Smith was born on in Pike County on January 6, 1879, to formerly enslaved parents. Her…

Harrod's Creek

Historical Marker #2038, located in Louisville, Kentucky (Jefferson County) marks the rich history of the Harrod’s Creek subdivision and its innovative creator, James Thomas Taylor. Harrod’s Creek began as a small port for flatboat traders during the…

Albery Allson Whitman

Historical Marker #2194, located in Munfordville, KY (Hart County) celebrates the racial progressivism and valuable artistry of Black poet, writer, pastor, and educator Albery Allson Whitman. Albery was born on May 30, 1851, to enslaved parents…

Enid Yandell

Historical Marker #2133, located in Louisville, KY (Jefferson County) remembers the outstanding ambition and skill of sculptor Enid Yandell. Enid was born in Louisville, Kentucky on October 6, 1869, to Lunsford Yandell, Jr., a prominent physician…

James Morrison Heady

Historical Marker #2148, located in Elk Creek, Kentucky (Spencer County) remembers the creative spirit of James Morrison Heady. Heady was born in 1829 in Spencer County, on a large family farm between Elk Creek and Normandy. Throughout his…

John William Bate

Historical Marker #2186, located in Danville, Kentucky (Boyle County) commemorates the inspiring life and progressive work of Black educator John William Bate. Bate was born in 1854 at the Woodside Plantation on the outskirts of Louisville. His…

Jug Band Pioneer

Historical Marker 2291, located in Louisville, Kentucky (Jefferson County), commemorates the vibrant life and legacy of Earl McDonald. Earl McDonald was born on October 2, 1885, in South Carolina. His mother and grandmother worked as servants for a…

Alice Lloyd College

Historical Marker #653, located in Garner, KY (Knott County), celebrates the rich legacy and ongoing progress of Alice Lloyd College. The College derives its name from Alice Spencer Geddes Lloyd, an educator and activist whose efforts brought new…
Thank you to the KHS staff and to the sponsor of the University of Kentucky Daniel B. Rowland Community Internship Award, which made this project possible.