Friday, March 8, 2013

Astonishing Accomplishments: African American Inventors

By Tinoelle Galloway
     Due to the Eurocentric perspective of science and technology, there has been a belief that African Americans lacked scientific and technological innovation.  Believe it or not, we all use at least one thing that was invented by an African American.  Peanut butter, the water gun, net fishing, and laser eye surgery were patented by African American inventors. Throughout American history, slaves were denied a proper education and free slaves were limited to getting career training. Despite centuries of oppression, talented African Americans worked to get their education and achieved their way to American dream. 

Colonial Innovation
     Believe or not, some of the colony’s best fishermen were Africans brought from slave ships into America. In West Africa, drugging fish was a common practice of catching fish. First, they would dam up a stream and then add plant juice to the water. Captured by hand, the intoxicated fish would rise from the water and still be edible. In 1726, the practice spread so widely in South Carolina that a law was passed to whip any slave convicted of the practice. However, the practice continued and also they introduced net fishing to the colonies. Combining the two techniques, Africans would stand out on dugout canoes, fling nets into the rivers, and took in large amounts of drugged fish. This practice supplied a heavy income for slaves and provided important trade source for South Carolina.

Free Slave Inventors
     Although free slave inventors were legally able to patent their inventions, most did not because of the fear of recognition and how it would impact their livelihoods.
     In 1791, Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), inventor and mathematician, produced the first scientific almanac established by an African American. Almanacs were very popular in late-eighteenth-century America. Banneker’s almanac consisted of poems, abolitionist essays, recipes, medical remedies, weather data, tidal information for Chesapeake Bay, and dates and information of festivals and holidays. Banneker sent his almanac, along with a special letter, to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson replied in 1797 and recommended Banneker to Major Andrew Elliot. Banneker served as an astronomical assistant to Elliot during the preliminary survey of the ten-mile square that became the District of Columbia.
     The first African American to receive a patent was Thomas Jennings (1791–1856) on March 3, 1821. Jennings was the owner of a dry-cleaning business and invented a new process for drying clothes. Jennings used the money from his invention to buy his family out of slavery.

      Known for not patenting his work, Massachusetts-born Lewis Temple (1800 – 18 May 1854) invented the toggle whaling harpoon in 1848. A black ironworker, Temple designed a harpoon with a movable head that prevented whales from slipping loose from the hook and escaping. Since Temple never patented his work, others were allowed to reproduce the harpoons and reduce his profits. Temple died in 1854, with his estate valued at less than $1,500.  Today, Lewis Temple has a statue in New Bedford, Massachusetts due to the importance of the harpoon and how it symbolizes whaling.
Unfree Slave Inventors
     If an African American was a slave, they could not patent their work because the U.S. patent offices refused to award patent to slaves.
     A slave name Jo Anderson received some credit for the development of the reaper.  Instead, Cyrus McCormick gave some of the credit to Anderson for the invention of the automatic reaper, but McCormick took the financial rewards for the invention.
     Slave born Henry Boyd (1806-1866) invented a bed with wooden rails screwed in both the foot-board and head board. Boyd’s bed had a stronger structure than other early-nineteenth-century beds. In 1826, he used the bedstead idea to purchase his freedom from the south.  Boyd never patented his work, but he did protect from having a white man apply for the patent. In advance, Boyd stamped his name on every bed frame to ensure authenticity.

African Americans Inventors After 1865
      During the period following the civil war, the ratification of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the constitution gave African Americans the right to patent their inventions. All innovators, including farmers, blacksmiths, and scientists, sought recognition for their technological inventions.
     Canadian-born Elijah McCoy (1843-1929) invented the automatic engine lubricator to continuously oil train and ship engines. Educated in Scotland, McCoy was unable to find an engineering career in the United States. On the Michigan Central Railroad, McCoy worked as a fireman and noticed that oiling train engines added a lot time between trips. He invented a “lubricating cup”, patented in 1872, provided a continuous flow of oil over the gears and preventing the machine from randomly shutting down. This invention would soon adapt to railroad and shipping lines. Elijah McCoy is inducted into the National Inventor Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio in 2001.
     African American immigrant, Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852-89), would revolutionize the shoe manufacturing process in America. The Surinam-born Matzeliger left an East Indian merchant ship in 1870 to work as a shoe cobbler in Philadelphia. While learning how to use the machine, he noticed the most difficult part was lasting, or connecting the upper part of the shoe, and had to be done by hand. He moved to Massachusetts, then the shoe manufacturing capital, where he developed the shoe-lasting machine which needed a lot of investing and financial assistants. On March 20, 1883, Matzeliger received a patent for his invention and formed the Union Lasting Machine Company.
     On January 17, 1882, Lewis Latimer (1848-1928) received a patent for his design of carbon filaments for the electric incandescent lamp. Latimer’s work improved carbon filament and was cheaper. Carbon filaments made it possible for consumers to enjoy. Latimer’s invention made it possible to operate lights at a higher temperature safely. 
     Garrett Augustus Morgan (1877-1963) invented the protective hood or gas mask that enables fire-fighters and others to enter smoked or toxic environments without inhaling contained air. The hood covered the head with a supply of clean air to the wearer through two tubes from a bag of air that hung on the back of the hood. Morgan got the patent for his invention in 1914.  Morgan saved twenty workmen trapped in the Cleveland Waterworks with poisonous smoke and gases on July 25, 1916. Morgan’s mask was used by hundreds of American soldiers in World War 1. Morgan’s mask design resembles the modern day hazardous chemical suit. Morgan also invented the stop sign or the modern day traffic light. Morgan made his traffic signal a bell on top and two flags with “stop” printed on them. The flags also alerted drivers and pedestrians to prepare to stop. Morgan received a patent for the traffic light on November 20, 1923. By then, his invention was also patented in Great Britain and Canada.
      Sarah Breedlove Walker (1867-1919), also known as Madam C. J. Walker, became the first African American female millionaire by inventing a chemical and the use of the hot comb to straighten African American women’s hair.  She made herself a millionaire by introducing her products to beauty salons, advertising, and traveling and selling her products all around the world. Walker also started her own manufacturing plant and headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana. She created a network for independent jobs for thousands of African American women.
     George Crum (1828-1914) is responsible for the invention of potato chips. In the summer of 1853, a customer claimed that Crum’s fries were too thick.  So Crum sliced the potato very thin, made the slice very crisp and put large amount of salt on them. Instead of hating it, the rude costumer actually liked what Crum made.  In 1860, Crum opened up his own restaurant and made huge amount of profits from potato chips. 
     George Washington Carver (1865-1943) was an agriculture chemist who won fame internationally for his research in the uses of peanut and other agriculture products. Missouri-born Carver was hailed as a pioneer for being involved in finding uses for farming methods. Carver, also known as the Peanut Man, discovered three hundred uses for peanuts, including milk substitute, face powder soap, and sweet potato. Believe or not, Carver did not attend college until the age of thirty and gained Bachelor’s and Masters’ of science degree at Iowa Agriculture College by 1867.  In 1897, Carver was convinced by Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for African Americans, to come south and serve as the school’s director. Even though America’s economy was heavily dependent upon agriculture, the economy down south had been devastated by civil war and the abolishment of slave labor. Carver used his base at Tuskegee to encourage black farmers to follow his suggestions and helped the region recover. Carver was an honorary member of the royal society of arts in London, England and received the NAACP Spingarn medal in1923.

Recent African American Inventors
     Famous for inventing one of the most popular toys, Lonnie George Johnson (1949-present) invented the super soaker water gun. Born in Mobile, Alabama, his father was a World War two veteran who taught his children to build their own toys. Johnson learned how to build a chinaberry shooter out of bamboo sticks and a go-cart he built from junkyard scraps. When in high school, he was inspired by the story great black inventor George Washington Carver to become an inventor.  He earned his bachelor’s and a master’s degree in engineering by 1975 at Tuskegee University. While joining the air force as an aerospace engineer, Johnson spent most of his time inventing mechanical and electrical systems for NASA rockets. His best known pet project, the world famous super soaker water gun, has generated more than 200 million in sales. The revenue earned him more than the 100 patents for his work with NASA and through his own company, Johnson Research and Development.
     Thanks to Dr. Patricia E. Bath’s (1942-present) dedication, many formerly blind patients now have sight. Once claimed to be impossible by scientists, her method of eye surgery allows surgeons to remove damaged or faulty parts in the eye put in new lens. Born in Harlem, New York, Bath was very inspired by her hard working parents. She was a very gifted student by advancing in both biology and chemistry. She graduated early from high school and received grants from the National Science Foundation. Bath graduated from Howard University of Medicine in 1968 and became the first African American woman surgeon at UCLA medical center in 1975. Bath’s motivation led her to the development of the Cataract Laserphaco Probe patented in 1988. She is the founder of the American Institute for Prevention of Blindness.
     Throughout 500 years, African Americans have accomplished some of the greatest achievements in American history, many of which we take for granted. I’m sure you learned something interesting for African American month.

For Further Reading:
Steward, Jeffrey C. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History. New York. Gramercy Books, 1996. Print.
Somerset, Jay. “Black Inventors”. Kaboose. 12 Feb 2013.
"Lonnie G. Johnson." 2013. The Biography Channel website.12 Feb 2013,
Bellis, Mary. Patricia Feb 2013.2013


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