Black Inventors in the USAby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
How has the status of the black inventor
in America evolved from the slave era up until today?
Note:For an extensive database of African-American Inventors,
Black inventors of the 19th century, generally invented devices that seem, at a glance, to merely fulfill an immediate need or improve on a simple task. Henry Blair, for example, patented the corn planter in 1834 and the cotton planter in 1836; both of these inventions were created to make a dreary task easier. A. P. Ashbourne patented the biscuit cutter in 1875, W.C. Carter patented the umbrella stand in 1885, and W.B. Purvis patented the fountain pen in 1890 (Butler). All of these inventions, though useful, were not the type to receive widespread acknowledgement or fame.
Although African Americans often invented time-saving tools out of necessity, a closer look exposes many free blacks who simply possessed the skills and aptitude necessary to create unique devices and who went above and beyond the creation of simpler devices. For instance, Thomas Jennings (1791-1859), a free black store owner, was the first African American to receive a patent. He invented a process for cleaning clothes, which helped him in his dry cleaning business and, in turn, allowed him to buy his family out of slavery. In addition, Elijah McCoy invented a “lubricating cup”, patented in 1872, which simplified the process of oiling a train’s engine and saved time and labor. This invention proved invaluable to the railroad, and although many imitations were created, savvy businessmen requested only McCoy’s lubricator, from which we get the popular phrase “The Real McCoy”. Lastly, Norbert Rillieux (1800-1894) impacted the entire sugar industry with his discovery of a process for refining sugar that cut down on labor and cost and produced a fine, white sugar (Black Inventors).
As the dire need for inventions dwindled and imaginative creators strove to create improvements instead, a struggle began that affected black inventors. Granville T. Woods (1856-?), known as The Black Edison, is a prime example of the struggles a black inventor faced during the 19th century. Woods invented such items as the chicken egg incubator, automatic air brakes, and various improvements on railways, such as the steam boiler furnace. More significant, however, was his struggle as a black inventor who faced the opposition of like-minded white inventors, specifically Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Woods invented what he called the “telegraphony”, a type of telephone transmitter, but due to lack of funds he was forced to sell his invention to the Bell Telephone Company. Another conflict ensued when Edison sued Woods, claiming that he was not the true inventor of the multiplex telegraph. Although Woods eventually won the lawsuit, he felt that his inventions were less accepted than those of white inventors (Belis, Black Inventors).
Throughout time African Americans rose from the opposition of others and continued inventing many wonderful things. No longer hindered by whites or confined to small inventions, modern day black inventors have significantly contributed to the lives of others through their hard work and research. Dr. Patricia Bath, for instance, patented the Laserphaco Probe, a laser device for the eye, in 1988; this machine aids in the removal of cataracts, providing more precision and less harm to the eye. In addition, Mark Dean created a device called the ISA systems bus in 1984, which allows a personal computer to have several machines connected to it at once, such as a printer and scanner or modem. ISA is widely used today and Dean also received the Black Engineer of the Year President’s Award in 1997 for his contribution (Modern Black Inventors). Inventions such as these clearly demonstrate the impact of black inventors in society as a whole; other objects such as the air conditioning unit, cell phone, dryer, elevator, motor, traffic light and many others were invented by black men and women (Black Inventors and Inventions).
Black inventors have certainly faced their share of trials through the centuries, but indeed they have overcome and proved themselves competent over and over. In this day and age, blacks still receive specialized awards for proving that they can achieve much, but really they are no different than any other inventors.
1. Who invented automatic air brakes?
a) Thomas Edison
b) Granville Woods
c) St. Nicholas
d) Elijah McCoy
e) Patricia Guth
2. What type of business did Thomas Jennings own?
e) Internet service provider
3. What did the Laserphaco Probe remove?
a) Unwanted hair
c) Excess fat
d) Ear wax
4. Mark Dean received the President’s Award for inventing what?
answers: 1. B, 2. C, 3. E, 4. C
Belis, Mary. “Granville T. Woods”. Inventors. 2004. About.com. 27 March 2004.
“Black Inventors”. 2002 Know Your Black History.com 27 March
“Black Inventors and Inventions”. University of Kentucky. 27
Butler, C. and Charles Isabell. “These Events In Black History”.
5 March 1994. MIT
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. 27 March 2004.
“Modern Black Inventors”. 1998 Ebony. 27 March 2004.
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