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In the Midst of the Storm 1: African American Inventors and their Contributions to the American Dream

Updated on February 6, 2015

Madame CJ Walker

Necessity: The Mother of Inventions

Although the Slave Trade in America, per the constitutional agreement of the founders fathers ended in the late 1700’s, unfortunately by the mid 1800’s it - once again, became a booming industry particularly in the Southern United States. This rise was partly a result of the invention of a remarkable machine known as the cotton gin, invented by a man not too far removed from the slavery era himself. This technological invention allowed planters in the South to grow a variety of cotton, particularly short staple cotton which was well suited to the hot climate of the Deep South. This revelation of crop production required more labor to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers. The cotton gin made the removal of the seeds much easier and more economical thereby making cotton production much more profitable for planters and farmers in the South. Still, growing cotton was very labor intensive and cotton growers needed a large supply of labor to tend the fields. With the creation of the cotton gin American blacks were once again the major suppliers of cheap labor.

It is customary to connect American Slavery to hard labor, abuse, and human degradation. This connection would not be entirely wrong. However, in the midst of the storm of the atrocities of slavery and subsequent years following, - the most remarkable technological inventions were created which changed the lives of the American family, the labor industry, and the world as a whole. These amazing inventions were created by, in most cases - the slaves themselves – or those not far removed from slavery or the slavery era. These people were identified by the era as ‘The American Negro.’

Throughout the early history of the development of America, the American Negro - in the midst of their storms of deprivation and hardship - invented some of the most important and interesting devices known to mankind. Among them is the invention of something as simple as the ‘lubricating oil dripping cup’ for trains by Elijah McCoy (1843-1929). Other inventors tried to copy McCoy's oil-dripping cup which resulted in many duplicates but none worked as well as his, which lead customers to ask for "the real McCoy”, which coined the modern day term. Little known inventors like Lewis Latimer (1848–1928) invented an important part of the light bulb known as the carbon filament. Lewis would later work side by side in laboratories of both Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, streamlining the invention of what would later be known as the ‘light bulb’ and another remarkable invention known today as the ‘Telephone”.

Another little known, but great inventor was a young man name Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852–1889) who invented a shoemaking machine that increased shoemaking speed by 900%. This invention has little significance in today’s modern technology, but a major breakthrough in the mid 1800’s. As a tribute to his remarkable invention, the U.S. Postal Service created a postage stamp in his honor in 1992. Yet another little known inventor named Granville T. Woods (1856–1910) who was once denied the opportunity to stand within 10 feet of a train, later invented a train-to-station communication system which increased both railcar time efficiency and safety through effective communications. We’re all familiar with the well known inventor - George Washington Carver (1860–1943). George Washington Carver was born a slave and did not have the opportunity to attend college until he was 30 years old. However, in the midst of his storm he invented what became the favorite food of America, and subsequently the favorite food of the world commonly known as peanut butter, along with 400 other plant products!

We now recognize a young lady, who was born so poor her family used to share a sandwich to get by. She was the remarkable Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919). Madame Walker invented a hair-growing lotion which was used by many Americans. Madame Walker became the first female African American millionaire during a time when females in general was not only considered third class citizens but was expected to only produce children for labor purposes. Across the states another significant invention - the Gas Mask, invented by Garrett Morgan (1877–1963), protected US soldiers from biological chemicals initiated by chemical warfare or other gas agents. A man named Garrett Morgan who had no access to mobile transportatiion created the first traffic signal used by millions today in cities and local communities across the globe.

In the midst of the storm arose another invention by a man named Otis Boykin (1920–1982). Mr. Boykin invented the electronic control devices for guided missiles, IBM computers, and the pacemaker. Mr. Boykin also invented 28 different electronic devices currently being used in several electronics systems today. In the medical arena we have Dr. Patricia. E. Bath (1949–) who invented a method of eye surgery that has helped increased the vision of many blind people across the globe awarding her a nomination to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Other famous inventions from the midst of the storm include the creation of the elevator by Alexander Mils - and the automatic gearshift by Richard Spikes - and the supercharge system for internal combustion engines by Joseph Gambol. Each invention set the stage for today’s modern technology.

A Sunday ride on the infamous Canal Streetcar Line or the world-famous San Francisco cable cars was made possible by the invention of the electric trolley by Albert R. Robinson. Maintaining the tidiness of city streets from St Louis to Seattle Washington was made possible with the invention of the ‘Street Sweeper by Charles Brooks. Writing would be somewhat difficult without the creation of John Love's pencil sharpener or William Purvey's fountain pen. William Purvey also invented the hand stamp. Typing was made possible by Lee Barrage's typewriter while magazine printing was made possible by the invention of W. A. Love's advanced printing press. William Barry invented the postmarking and canceling machine, while a young man named Philip Downing invented the letter drop. Man moved from the darkness of his living room by the creation of Michael Harvey’s lantern and Lewis Lattimer's electric lamp. While the electric lamp was a remarkable invention it was difficult to turn off without the invention of Granville T. Woods' automatic on/off switch.

Thomas Steward created an environment of cleanliness with the invention of the mop followed by Lloyd P. Ray’s invention of the dustpan. Lawn care became a favorite past time allowing green grass with the invention of Joseph Smith's sprinkler system and John Burr's lawn mower. Summer time in hot climates would be unbearable without the invention of Fredrick Jones' air conditioner while surviving winter in cold months would be challenging without the invention of the heating furnace by Alice Parker. Another first in the medical arena was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams who performed the first open heart surgery. He is also the founder of the Provident Hospital and Training School Association. The school trained Black nurses while doctors of all races participated and learned from Dr. Hale’s remarkable talented achievements. And finally, the ultimate invention allowing the preservation of food known today as the ‘refrigerator’ was invented by John Standard.

These are but a few technological inventions by the American Negro – now respectfully recognized as African Americans which arose out of the midst of the storms of slavery and oppression. African Americans are also the originators of many other American inventions such as music, fashion, drama, language, etc., which will be explored in perhaps another hub. While the American Slavery experience was not a period of American pride, it was however, a period of multiple inventions by slaves, and former slaves which revolutionized a nation, and perhaps the world - ushering in the industrial revolution and moving mankind closer to the technology of tomorrow. When we look back objectively – beneath the oppressive era of slavery in America, we can see how, in addition to slave labor, the American ‘Negro’ (term used in the context of the time) made significant contributions to the advancement of mankind – moving us further from the ice age into the 22nd century of technological advancements. . Click on the link below for additional information on African American Inventors and their inventions. This link is but a snapshot of valuable information on the subject.

The success of the early American Colonies which lead to the unifying of the states we now know as the United States of America are rich with significant contributions by all races and nationalities. This hub is focused on the African American contributions through the midst of their storms. I will later focus my attention on the contributions of Native Americans and other groups – through the midst of their storms.

Until then - Peace be with you!


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    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      5 years ago from United States of America

      @ Denden mangubat: Amen Brother!!

    • denden mangubat profile image

      denden mangubat 

      5 years ago from liloan, cebu, philippines

      black men are very talented people..they are just black because it is a defense mechanism of a human body.all is human.

    • profile image

      Michele T 

      7 years ago

      I want to thank you for enlightening us with history and true facts about how African American people helped shape America and the entire world today.

      As an educator, I share the story of how Ebonics played an important role in our lives, by communicating in a language that was different than our own. Without a book, pen, computer, light, from being whipped, and our families torn apart. We still made great strides in learning their ways and language .

      Now it up to us to educate our children from all walks and colors..What we did to better this world today.

      Again, I thank you

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      7 years ago from United States of America

      Brinafr3sh - my apology for the late response but thanks for your candid and encouraging comments. I believe black history is rich with unknown heroes and its unfortunate that many did receive their due recognition for such great inventions.

    • Brinafr3sh profile image


      7 years ago from West Coast, United States

      I like black history. Thanks Jxb7076. Also I think there should be black history museums in every city. :)

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      8 years ago from United States of America

      Nikki D. Felder - thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am humbled that you enjoyed the hub. I pray that your students will understand and appreciate the value of this history to their future.

    • Nikki D. Felder profile image

      Nikki D. Felder 

      8 years ago from Castle Hayne, N.C.

      I love this post. I value this information and find that I try to incorporate it not just in February with my students. Thanks

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      9 years ago from United States of America

      creativeone59 - Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I had to leave a lot out as the hub would have been more than two pages. I am humbled that you found the info useful.

    • creativeone59 profile image

      benny Faye Douglass 

      9 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

      Thank you for all the research you had to do to get this info to us. thank you for sharing such amazing knowledge with me. creativeone59

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      9 years ago from United States of America

      Hi Tom C - thanks for stopping by. I think history has a lot of grey areas regarding inventions where ownership may be a matter of who filed a patent first, or what country want the credit. I know a lot of technology was already in circulation before patents were filed. In a case like this the person filing the patent usually get the credit unless other terms apply.

      Thanks for stoping by and commenting. Please let me know if you find additional information on John Standard as my hub was focused on general issues and not specifics.

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      9 years ago from United States of America

      ralwus - thanks again for stopping by and commenting. There are so many people who've contributed so much towards the technological advancement of our country that we don't know about. I am humbled that you enjoyed the hub. There are so many great people on Hub Pages that I am just getting to meet virtually. I will definitely check out your articles.

      Until, I'll see you on line.

    • Tom Cornett profile image

      Tom Cornett 

      9 years ago from Ohio

      Very interesting hub. I was told that Carl von Linde, a German engineer invented the refrigerator in 1876. That's what we were told in tech school. Are most educational institutions lying about history? I didn't know about John Standard. I'll do some research. Thanks for the info.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Kudos jxb! I love this stuff and T. Edison was a rat! really he was, smart rat though. LOL You did a great job of research here. Thanks as I enjoy learning all about our great nations peoples. Looks like we came along to HP about the same time, me as CC Riter back in Dec. Funny our paths have not crossed sooner. Glad to discover you finally.

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      9 years ago from United States of America

      Thanks for the comments RA. I vivited a slave graveyard in Huntsville Alabama a year ago and was impelled to capture their contributions to the American dream. Just standing at the gravesite gave me chills.

    • Research Analyst profile image

      Research Analyst 

      9 years ago

      This is a wonderful representation on how we can be grateful and thankful for those who came before us and contributed so much to the betterment of society, and if more of our youth could appreciate the african american inventors who have overcome all types of obstacles personally and professionally as they served as pioneers in their field.

    • prasetio30 profile image


      9 years ago from malang-indonesia

      thanks for share. great hub

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      9 years ago from United States of America

      Hello AEvans - thanks for stopping by.  Yes, there are so many more not mentioned but I wanted to keep the hub within readable range otherwise it whould have been a short novel.  I truly believe people should be given recognition for their contributions.  I felt that I was fortunate to have parents who gave me a balance between what African Americans accomplished among the accomplishments by other groups.  It really helped me appreciate all people and kept me grounded in my own skin.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • AEvans profile image


      9 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      Wonderful hub and there are so many more that are not listed, but of course I know you will list them, perfect facts and truths as so many do not who invented what , and credit should always be given where credit is due. :)

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      9 years ago from United States of America

      Men ar dorks - thanks for the feedback man.  It all gives a realistic meaning to the term 'life isn't fair' I may be a pessimist but I often think that expecting people to treat each other equally is a pipe's dream.  However, I believe we're making progress, slow progress, but progress just the same. 

      BkCReative - yes, it is a lot of history.  Unfortunately it's surpressed history which need to be told.  I can imagine how difficult it must be for you as a school teacher to undo the educational damage while staying within the course curriculum.  Good luck with that! 

      Hello Coffeesnob - thanks for the visit man.  Perhaps it's possible that the will can be surpressed but the dreams always survive, waiting for the willpower to catch up.  To accomplish so much against all odds requires great will power.  Thanks for the comment.

      Hi Rose Ella - how are you?  I did not know that tibit of information about the black boy jockey.  Thats very interesting! I really enjoy researching unknown history.  I find it to be a real intellectual challenge.  Thanks for the comment and the information. 

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      9 years ago from United States of America

      bgpappa - thanks for the comments. As I was writing this hub I imagined the number inventors who went to their grave as unknowns - despite the significance of their contributions. Even today, I believe there are people being robbed of the recognition of their individual contributions.

      Thanks for the feedback.

    • jxb7076 profile imageAUTHOR

      James Brown 

      9 years ago from United States of America

      Ivorwen - I am in total agreement with your statement. I am a strong believer that we can control our destiny. Others may make it difficult but where there's a will - there will always be a way.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • Rose Ella Morton profile image

      Rose Ella Morton 

      9 years ago from Beverly Hills, Michigan

      Good hub I love history and true facts. I was surprize to learn the the Black boy jockey which is place on the lawn was never meant to be racist. The fact is George Washington had a slave boy who would wait out side to take his horse in the dark, holding a Lantern for light. One cold night he froze to death, the same way he was standing. George Washington was so hurt he had a statue made of him that he put outside his door.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great Hub! Lots of good information and even thoughts to ponder about the growth that came even in the midst of trial!

    • BkCreative profile image


      9 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Great stuff! So much - so very much. So much his-story - we should be embarrassed to create myths about history.

      As a teacher, I've had to undo so much illogical damage done to my students. Even now the world history books show white Christiaan Barnard as performing the world's first heart transplant in S. Africa - another lie. It was Hamilton Naki - a real South African. When I contact these companies printing this nonsense and they apologize because they should have done more research - I simply ask them "Why would you believe anything great would come out of apartheid?"

      Many many more thanks for all your hubs and the time you take to put these together. There's a reason why we've been the laughing stock of the world - we don't even know our own history.

      Many thanks!

    • men are dorks profile image

      men are dorks 

      9 years ago from Namibia

      I think its a pitty not every one gets treated equally, even in today's world. great topic bro....

    • bgpappa profile image


      9 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Another great article. It is a shame so many who built this country are left unnamed.

    • Ivorwen profile image


      9 years ago from Hither and Yonder

      This article really shows that the human mind is not limited by the color of skin OR the circumstances in which we live.


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