Inventors and Inventions

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Inventors and Inventions

Historians are just beginning to uncover some of the ways in which African Americans have contributed to the development of American technology. Seventeenth-century African-American inventors left no written records of their own. But many of them were skilled in crafts and created new devices and techniques in the course of their work. Africans brought a store of technological knowledge with them to the Americas. In the West elements of African technology merged with European and Native American technology to create new American traditions in technology. This is particularly evident in the areas of boat building, rice culture, pharmacology, and musical instrument making.

More is known about black inventors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly those who enjoyed some celebrity in their time, such as Norbert Rillieux, a Louisianan who invented the multiple-effect vacuum evaporation system for producing sugar from sugar cane. The Rillieux method revolutionized the sugar industry and came to be the accepted method of sugarcane juice evaporation. Though blacks contributed to the technological development that resulted, there was little public recognition of their achievements.

In the North many African-American men turned to the maritime trades for employment, and from these ranks came several outstanding inventors such as James Forten, the wealthy Philadelphia black abolitionist whose fortune was built upon his invention around the turn of the nineteenth century of a sail-handling device, and Lewis Temple, who introduced the toggle harpoon to commercial whaling in Massachusetts in the 1840s.

Craftsmen who invented new devices discovered innovative techniques that improved the quality of their products or reduced the cost of producing them often went into business for themselves instead of hiring themselves

out for wages. But these craftsmen-inventors still faced the problems of patenting the invention or protecting it somehow from competitors, financing its production, and marketing it.

The enactment of the U.S. Patent Act in 1790 provided for some documentation of black inventors and their inventions, but this documentation is incomplete. Because the race of the inventor was not generally recorded by the U.S. Patent Office, it is not known for certain how many blacks received patents. Thomas L. Jennings, a New York abolitionist, is the earliest African-American patent holder to have been identified so far. He received a patent for a dry-cleaning process on March 3, 1821. Further research may uncover earlier black patent holders. Slaves were legally prohibited from receiving patents for their inventions, and there are few surviving accounts in which slave inventors are fully identified.

The slave inventor found himself in an unlikely position that must have strained the assumptions of slavery to the utmost. Nothing illustrates the slave inventor's dilemma more clearly than the situation of two such inventors:

"Ned" and Benjamin Montgomery. They were responsible for the federal government and the Confederate government formally taking up the "problem" of slave inventors.

Ned's owner, O. J. E. Stuart, wrote to the secretary of the interior requesting that he receive a patent for the invention of a cotton scraper that his slave mechanic, Ned, had invented. Although Stuart admitted that the concept for the invention came entirely from Ned, he reminded the secretary that "the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both intillectual [sic], and manual." The U.S. attorney general rendered a final opinion on June 10, 1858, "that a machine invented by a slave, though it be new and useful, cannot, in the present state of the law, be patented." The attorney general also prohibited the masters of slaves from receiving patents for their slaves' inventions. The decision not to allow either slaves or their owners to receive patents for slave inventions meant that such inventions could not enjoy any legal protection or any formal recognition. The attorney general's opinion stood until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment. Further mention of Ned is absent from the historical record, and nothing is known of what became of him.

Benjamin Montgomery was also a slave inventor. He was the slave of Joseph Davis (brother of Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederacy). Montgomery served as general manager and mechanic on Davis's plantation in Mississippi. In the late 1850s Montgomery invented a propeller for a river steamboat, specifically designed for the shallow waters around the plantation. Montgomery's biographers write that both Joseph and Jefferson Davis tried to have the propeller patented, but they were prevented from doing so by the attorney general's 1858 decision barring slave inventions from being patented. After he became president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis oversaw Confederate legislation that allowed a master to receive patents for his slaves' inventions. Many other slaves, lost to history, invented labor-saving devices and innovative techniques.

After the Civil War significant numbers of black inventors began to patent their inventions. The list of inventions patented by blacks reveals what kinds of occupations African Americans held and in which sectors of the labor force they were concentrated. Agricultural implements, devices for easing domestic chores, musical instruments,

Selected Inventions by African Americans

Inventor Invention Year
Ashbourne, A.P. Biscuit cutter 1875
Bailey, L.C. Folding bed 1899
Bath, P.E. cataract Laserphaco 1988
Beard, A.J. Rotary Engine 1892
Beard, A.J. Car-coupler 1897
Becket, G.E. Letter box 1892
Bell, L. Locomotive smokestack 1871
Benjamin, M.E. Gong and signal chairs for hotels 1888
Binga, M.W. Street sprinkling apparatus 1879
Blackburn, A.B. Railway signal 1888
Blair, Henry Corn planter 1834
Blair, Henry Cotton planter 1836
Boone, Sarah Ironing board 1892
Boykin, Otis Burglar-proof cash register 1961
Brooks, C.R. Street-sweeper 1896
Brooks, Phil Disposable syringe 1974
Brown, Marie Video home security system 1969
Brown, O.E. Horseshoe 1892
Burr, J.A. Lawn mower 1899
Butts, J.W. Luggage carrier 1899
Carter, W.C. Umbrella stand 1885
Church, T.S. Carpet beating machine 1884
Cook, G. Automatic fishing device 1899
Cooper, J. Elevator device 1895
Cornwall, P.W. Draft regulator 1893
Cralle, A.L. Ice-cream mold 1897
Crum, George Potato chip 1853
Davis, W.R., Jr. Library table 1878
Demon, Ronald © Smart Shoe 1998
Dorticus, C.J. Machine for embossing photos 1895
Downing, P.B. Street letter drop mailbox with hinged door 1891
Drew, C.R. Blood bank c. 1938
Elkins, T. Refrigerating apparatus 1879
Flemming, F., Jr. Guitar (variation) 1886
Goode, S.S. Folding cabinet bed 1885
Grant, G.F. Golf tee 1899
Gregory, J. Motor 1887
Headen, M. Foot power hammer 1886
Jackson, B.F. Gas burner 1899
Johnson, L.G. © Supersoaker 1988
Joyner, Majorie Permanent wave machine 1928
Latimer and Nichols Electric lamp 1881
Marshall, T.J. fire extinguisher (variation) 1872
McCoy, E. Lubricator for steam engines 1872
Morgan, Garrett Gas mask 1914
Morgan, Garrett Traffic signal 1923
Spears, H. Portable shield for infantry 1870
Sutton, E.H. Cotton cultivator 1878
Woods, G.T. Electromechanical brake 1887
Woods, G.T. Railway telegraphy 1887
Woods, G.T. Induction telegraph system 1887
Woods, G.T. Overhead conducting system for railway 1888
Woods, G.T. Electromotive railway system 1888
Woods, G.T. Railway telegraphy 1888

and devices related to the railroad industry were common. These inventions served as a source of financial security, personal pride, achievement, and spiritual "uplift" for African Americans. Much of the struggle for black inventors of that era revolved around the battle to assert themselves upon the national consciousness. On August 10, 1894, on the floor of the House of Representatives, Representative George Washington Murray from South Carolina rose to read the names and inventions of ninety-two black inventors into the Congressional Record. Representative Murray hoped that it would serve as a testament to the technological achievement of a people so recently emancipated.

Many African Americans made contributions to the new technologies and industries developed in the nineteenth century. Jan Matzeliger invented a shoe-lasting machine that made the skill of shoe lasting (i.e., shaping) by hand obsolete. Elijah McCoy designed hydrostatic oil lubricators that were adopted by railroad and shipping companies. His standard of quality was so rigorous that the term "the real McCoy" came to be applied to his lubricators and to stand for the highest quality product available. Garrett A. Morgan patented a safety hood (a precursor to the modern gas mask) and an automatic traffic signal. He once donned his safety hood himself to save the lives of men trapped in an underground explosion. Granville T. Woods and Lewis H. Latimer were pioneers in the newly emerging fields of electrical engineering. Woods patented many electrical and railway telegraphy systems; Latimer, with several patents to his credit, was one of the "Edison pioneers," the group of researchers who worked most closely with Thomas A. Edison.

The twentieth century brought many changes to industrial engineering and design. The rise of corporate enterprise led to more centralized research. Many of the most important inventions began to come from teams of researchers employed by large companies. As technology became more complicated, inventors in emerging fields began to have more formal education.

Today, advanced degrees in engineering and the sciences have become prerequisites for doing innovative work in some fields. Despite these changes, important inventions are still being patented by inventors who work aloneindividuals who are suddenly struck by a solution to a daily encountered problem, or who laboriously work out a cheaper, quicker, or better means of producing something.

See also Carver, George Washington; Forten, James; Latimer, Lewis Howard; Patents and Inventions; Science


Baker, Henry E. The Colored Inventor: A Record of Fifty Years. 1915. Reprint, New York: Arno Press and New York Times, 1968.

Carter-Ives, Patricia. Creativity and Invention: The Genius of Afro-Americans and Women in the United States and Their Patents. Arlington, Va.: Research Unlimited, 1988.

Gibbs, C. R. The Afro-American Inventor. Washington, D.C.: Gibbs, 1975.

Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. New York: Harcourt, 1970.

Hayden, Robert. Eight Black American Inventors. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1972.

Hermann, Janet Sharp. Pursuit of a Dream. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

James, Portia P. The Real McCoy: African American Invention and Innovation, 16191930. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1989.

Klein, Aaron. Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

portia p. james (1996)