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Out of Africa, Always Something New

Updated on July 28, 2015

African-American Inventions


Good News From Africa

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (Pliny, Roman author)

Two millennia Pliny the elder is reputed to have said “ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” a phrase that roughly translates to “Out of Africa, always something new.” But from the beginning of the seventeenth century onwards, not withstanding the brief 'winds of change' that blew across the African continent in the 50s and 60s, it is sometimes hard to imagine interesting discoveries coming out of humanity's homeland. But hope's spring really is eternal and we shouldn't be amazed that new things can and still do emerge from the African continent despite its many decriers due to the questionable to bad governance by some of its leader's of the rich human and natural resources of which they're custodians.

This post is to inform you of some of the achievements of the descendants as well as the current children of the mother continent; namely Alexander Miles, Elijah McCoy, George Carver, Sangulani Maxwell Chikumbutso, Kelvin Doe, Arthur Lang, Kodjo Afate Gnikou and Segun Oyeyiola.

Inventor Alexander Miles


Inventor Elijah McCoy


George W Carver


3 Great African American Inventors

Alexander Miles

Are you one of those people who always look for a lift or an elevator on entering a building with lots of stairs? Have you ever been in one of those old buildings that have manual door on their cage lifts, which you have to pull open to get into and shut as you leave? Well most of us haven't thanks to the invention by been to Alexander Miles. Miles was an African-American inventor who is largely known for his contribution to the elevator industry.

Although he was not the original inventor of the concept of the elevator or elevator doors, his improvements to the original design enabled lift or elevator doors to open and close automatically as the lift arrived and stopped at designated floor or level. Prior to his design adjustments, all lift doors had to be open manually. This improvement on the previous elevators models was welcomed primarily due to safety concerns. With the older elevator models of the elevator there were numerous accidents wherein people would fall out of the elevator and into the shaft mainly because the elevator would go up or down even if the doors would not close as the elevator was in motion.

Alexander Miles was born in Ohio in 1838, but moved to Duluth, Minnesota in the 1870s where he found work as a barber. His other noted achievement is that he was the only African-American on the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

Elijah McCoy, The Real McCoy,

Ever wondered about the origins of the phrase 'the real McCoy'? Wonder no more for I will give you a taster of what this genius is famous for.

Elijah J. McCoy was born as free man in 1844, to parents, George and Mildred (nee Goins) who had fled from slavery, via the slave Underground Railroad, from Kentucky to Colchester, Ontario, in Canada where Elijah was born.

His father George joined the Canadian Army and fought in the Rebel War of 1837 from which he gained the status of being an officially freeman and was able to acquired a 160 acre homestead on which he and his wife raised their family as free Canadian citizens.

From an early age, Elijah had showed a keen interest in mechanics by dissembling various items apart and then reassembling them again. Recognizing Elijah's mechanical engineering abilities, George and Mildred saved enough money to send him to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he could study mechanical engineering.

In 1859, the 15 years old Elijah McCoy found himself in Scotland for the beginning of an apprenticeship and studies in Edinburgh, where he gained qualifications as a certified mechanical engineer.

On completing his studies, Elijah returned to the United States, incidentally coinciding with the end of the Civil War and the emergence of the “Emancipation Proclamation.” Elijah then moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan but was unable to find work as an engineer.

Forced to take on a position as a fireman and oilman with the Michigan Central Railroad. Elijah McCoy was responsible for shovelling coal into the fires that produced the stem which powered locomotives.

But as an oilman, Elijah was responsible for keeping and ensuring that axles and bearings of the trains he worked on were lubricated. When he begun working on the trains, every few miles or so, the train would stop and he'd walk alongside the train applying oil to all the necessary parts, a time consuming and tedious task.

To keep his mind, and mechanical engineering skills, nimble McCoy set out to make his life as an oilman easier and came up with the idea of automation, which he could sell to the railroad company because it would mean a reduction to the frequent stops. Time has always meant money, and so the 'lubricating cup' was invented in 1872 and patented a year later.

Its job was to automatically drip oil when and where it was needed. The invention was met with immediate and great success, with orders for it coming from railroad companies all over the country. It wasn't long before a host of other inventors jumped on the bandwagon, inventing their lubrication cups and attempting to sell their own inferior versions of the device as the real deal, only to be met by most companies wanting the authentic device by demanding “the Real McCoy.”

George W Carver

Most people interested in science, agricultural science to be specific and a lot of 'conscious' African Americans will have heard of him, and know some of the achievements of George Washington Carver, as well as the honours and awards he accrued in his lifetime and posthumously.

For those who don't know who he was, let me fill you in. George W Carver was an innovator. He introduced and taught farmers methods of soil improvement, advocating several alternative cash crops to heavily cultivated cotton fields as soil nutrient enhancers. He also initiated research into the chemurgical benefits of crop products, but his lasting legacy is that he taught generations of black agricultural students techniques for self-sufficiency.

Born into slavery, George Washington Carver was born in Diamond, Missouri in the mid 1860s the exact year and date of his birth is but it is thought to around 1864 to 1866.

Despite the many onerous vicissitudes that the lives of most black people and families faced in nineteenth century America, Carver was able to grow up to be one of the most prominent scientists and inventors of his generation. He was appointed as head of the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute, and remained there for 47 years.

During his tenure there he developed the department into a strong research centre devising hundreds of products using peanuts, soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes to name just a few crops. His investigations into one crop the humble peanut, was able to come up with dyes, plastics and gasoline.

Despite his prolific product creation, Carver only applied for three patents, one for cosmetics; patent number 1,522,176; and two for paints and stains; patent numbers 1,541,478 and 1,632,365 in 1925 to 1927, they were not commercially successful. Carver gave freely his discoveries to mankind, he is reported to have said, "God gave them to me" referring to his ideas, "How can I sell them to someone else?" In keeping with that same ethos, in 1940 Carver donated his life savings to the establishment of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee, for continuing research in agriculture partly because he was still unmarried by the time he passed away in 1943.

Kodjo Afate Gnikou

Inventor Maxwell Chikhumbusto


Inventor Segun Oyeyiola


Inventor Arthur Zang


Kelvin Doe at TEDxTeen

5 New African Inventors You Should Know

Sangulani (Maxwell) Chikumbutso: Zimbabwe's Serial Inventor

Maxwell Chikumbutso is a Zimbabwean founder of Saith Technologies. He was born in Harare in 1980, brought up by a single parent, his mother and grew up in the high-density suburb of Kuwadzana. His father was a qualified journeyman (apprentice) similar to Elijah McCoy, this man been Maxwell's inspiration to become a mechanic.

Chikhumbutso, a devout Christian, says that in September 1997, whilst praying on some mountain he was inspired by scripture to name his company 'Saith Technologies'. He says it was also at this time that he started to receive visions. He claims that most of the electronics that he knows came from those visions of blueprints he received at that time.

His first successful project was some two years later, in 999, when he built a radio transmitter that made headline news on ZBC, but despite the air of national publicity the project faltered due to lack of funding. But that didn't stop him; in 2001 he developed a Digital Navigation Facilitator, mentored by Rose Mazula the then chairperson of the Broadcast Association of Zimbabwe.

The invention, which became the first additional modifications to Zimbabwean aircraft technology since 1980 was designed to land aircraft using variables that include speed, size and altitude position of the aircraft. The irony of this invention is at that time Maxwell Chikhumbutso had yet to set foot in an aircraft, let alone fly in one. Both the technical training centre and the air force of Zimbabwe assessed the digital navigation facilitator. It was given a commendation by the aircraft engineers of both bodys, but still he could not get the funding he needed to further develop the project.

It wasn't until he met Bruce Mujeyi, a lawyer, that his luck begun to change. Mujeyi saw the value of Chikhumbusto ideas, investing in them, and suggested that he should patents his inventions. A decade or so ago, in 2003, Maxwell had the idea for a self-powered generator. In 2007 Maxwell couldn't find an attorney to represent him to file for a patent for the Greener Power generator he was developing, because it apparently violated current natural laws of physics. It was suggested to him that he re-classify the invention calling it a perpetual motion device instead, which he refused to do.

Despite his invention track record there were still no takers to fund the project. Undaunted, Maxwell worked as a truck driver and slowly financed his project, which came to fruition in 2009 when the first prototype of his Greener generator showed definite signs of success by producing 1,200 watts of electricity. Clike here if you'd like to hear the Maxwell explaining how his invention works.

To cut a long story short, it wasn't until he me an Angolan born pastor, Dr Teddy De Almeida, that things really begun to happen for Maxwell. This story is stranger than fiction in parts, because De Almeida, owner of one of the biggest technology companies in the Bongani group, without a binding legal agreement, handed over, over $500,000 development money apparently desiring no return for his money, apart from giving Chikhumbutso a word of warning to use the money wisely. Eventually the Greener Machine was completed; it was then that Dr De Almeida took up equity in Saith Technologies

Up and Coming Young African Scientific Talent

At the risk of making this an interminable post I'll just mention in passing 15 year old Kelvin Doe from Sierra Leone, who he invented a battery from recycled materials and made his own FM radio transmitter.

There is also the Cameroonian engineer, Arthur Zang, inventor of the Cardiopad, the first medical tablet that enables cardiovascular examination to be carried out remotely & transmit the results to the surgeons.

In Togo, we find Kodjo Afate Gnikou, who has made a 3-D printer from recycled electronic.

In Nigeria, there's Segun Oyeyiola who motivated by climate change concerns set about to create a car that would suit the African environment and run on wind and solar energy alone.

I hope I have down Pliny the elder's view of Africa some justice in showing that there still new and wonderful things to come out of Africa for the benefit of all mankind.


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