In the Midst of the Storm 1: African American Inventors and their Contributions to the American Dream
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. http://www.blackinventions101.com/inventionslist.html
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!