Short article on prominent 19th century African American inventors.
6 - 12+
Anthropology, Engineering, Geography, Human Geography
African Americans established a strong history of inventing products and tools in the 18th century. During the 19th century, before and after slavery was abolished, black inventors continued to have a great influence on the United States.
Andrew J. Beard
Andrew Jackson Beard (1849–1921) was born into slavery in Alabama and gained his freedom when he was fifteen. He invented his own flour mill, a rotary steam engine, and two kinds of plows before he went to work for the railroad in the 1890s.
Railroads connected the busy east coast of the United States with the frontier states in the west. They transformed communication and travel. Working for various rail companies, Beard created his most famous invention, the Jenny coupler. The Jenny coupler automatically locked train cars together when they bumped into each other. This made connecting long trains for travel and trade much easier. Before the invention of the Jenny coupler, workers had to insert a metal pin to link the cars as they came together. It was very dangerous work, and Beard saw and heard about many gruesome accidents. The Jenny coupler was an invention that saved the lives of countless railroad workers.
Henry Blair (1804–1860) is the first black man to be identified on a U.S. patent application. The identification of Blair as black was an accident, as the U.S. Patent Office usually didn't identify patent holders by race.
Very little is known about Henry Blair, other than he must have been a free black man. Enslaved peoples weren't allowed to hold patents. Blair was awarded the patent in 1834 for a corn planter. The corn planter combined plowing, placing the seeds, and covering the seeds with soil. Blair was awarded a second patent for a cotton seed planter in 1836.
Solomon Brown (1829–1906) worked with Samuel Morse on the telegraph machine, which revolutionized communication in the 19th century. Brown installed the wires and made sure the telegraph worked properly.
Brown was also the first African American to be hired by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Using his own drawings, Brown gave talks on entomology, geology, philosophy, and religion to packed houses for several decades.
Hugh M. Browne
Hugh Mason Browne (1851–1923) was an educator who worked with such prominent African Americans as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Charles Chesnutt. Browne was especially concerned with education, and traveled to Liberia to compare the education system there to the one in the United States.
Browne was also a practical man, interested in improving the lives of everyday people. He invented a machine that trapped sewer water and stopped it from flowing back into a house. This helped residents live healthier lives. Browne was granted the patent on April 29, 1890.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver (1864?–1943) was an agricultural chemist famous for improving the lives of poor farmers through new farming methods.
During much of the 19th century, Southern farmers planted cotton year after year, which depleted the soil of vital nutrients. Carver’s experiments found the peanut plant restored nitrogen to the topsoil and made it healthy again. Planting peanuts one year and cotton the next increased the life of the soil. This planting process is called crop rotation.
Carver’s cotton-peanut crop rotation created peanut surpluses—more peanuts than people had need for them. Carver found new uses for peanuts and peanut products, including soap, face powder, mayonnaise, shampoo, metal polish, and glue.
Later, Carver discovered that sweet potatoes and peas had the same nitrogen-fixing abilities as peanuts. This profitable crop rotation allowed farmers to maintain soil fertility. Carver was awarded two peanut-related patents: one for pomade or cream (Patent no. 1,522,176 January 6, 1925) and one for a paint or stain (Patent no. 1,541,478 June 9, 1925).
Shelby Davidson (1868–1931) worked for the United States Postal Service. He did not deliver mail, however. He worked in the auditing department, keeping track of numbers and schedules. Davidson invented a rewind device for adding machines in 1908. The rewind device reduced the amount of paper and time clerical workers spent on paperwork. Davidson also invented an automatic fee device in 1911 that allowed postal workers to work more efficiently.
Lewis Latimer (1848–1928) was a member of Thomas Edison’s research team and became the head draftsman for General Electric.
A draftsman is a person who draws pictures of buildings, machinery, or inventions. These drawings can determine the success or failure of the patent application. Latimer did the draft work for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; Bell received his patent in 1876.
In 1882, Latimer invented a carbon filament to use in light bulbs. It lasted longer and was cheaper than Edison’s first design. Edison’s company hired Latimer soon after.
Latimer also designed a bathroom for railroad cars, a disinfecting and cooling device, a hat and coat rack, locking umbrellas, and a device for supporting books.
Jan Ernst Matzeliger
Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852–1889) invented a machine to connect the upper part of the shoe with its sole. This process is called lasting. Matzeliger’s shoe lasting machine could make 150 to 700 pairs of shoes in one day, compared to 50 pairs a day lasted by hand.
George Washington Murray
George Washington Murray (1853–1926) held eight patents relating to farming. Born an enslaved person, Murray was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina in 1892.
George Washington Murray is an ancestor of Rep. Jim Clyburn, a current member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina.
John Parker (1827–1900) owned three of the seventy-seven patents issued to African Americans by 1886. He was only one out of fifty-five African Americans to be granted more than one patent in the U.S. by 1900. He is best known for patenting a portable tobacco screw press. This was used for cutting tobacco.
Parker was also a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. From his home in Ripley, Ohio, Parker helped more than one thousand enslaved people receive their freedom.
Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894) was a Creole inventor from New Orleans. He studied in Paris, France, before returning to the U.S.
Rillieux’s father was the owner of a large plantation, where sugar was often grown. Rillieux invented the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator for refining sugar. His invention produced a whiter, more refined sugar with less labor. Rillieux’s refining process was eventually extended to all evaporating processes—including condensed milk, gelatin, soap, glue, and whiskey.
Samuel Scottron (1843–1905) invented an adjustable mirror so that barbershop clients could examine their haircuts from every angle.
From the barbershop, Scottron branched out into inventions for the home. He invented the adjustable window cornice, a pole tip, a curtain rod, and a supporting bracket. (A cornice is an attractive window overhang that's used to hide the curtain rod.) Scottron was the first African American to be a member of the Brooklyn, New York, Board of Education and was a co-founder of the Cuban Anti-Slavery Society.
Lewis Temple (1800–1854) redesigned a harpoon, a device for hunting whales, in 1845. Called "Temple's Iron," his invention hooked the whale onto the line much like a fish on a hook. His invention led to more whales being caught and killed. During the 19th century, New England was the center of the whaling industry. “Temple’s Iron” helped create a thriving economic community in places like New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Sarah Breedlove Walker
Sarah Breedlove Walker (1867–1919), also known as Madame C. J. Walker, is probably the most famous African American woman inventor.
Walker invented the hot comb and a pomade to make hair soft and shiny. Before the hot comb, African Americans straightened their hair on ironing boards. Many people had burns on the face and scalp, as well as damaged hair, because of this. Walker revolutionized the African American cosmetics industry.
To increase business for her beauty products, Madame C. J. Walker organized saleswomen into "Walker Clubs," a system copied later by Mary Kay Cosmetics. In 1908, she founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to train women to sell her products.
This marketing system worked very well. Walker became the first African American woman millionaire. She employed 3,000 people in her Indianapolis, Indiana, factory. Madam C. J. Walker gave generously to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) and other nonprofit groups or charities. She also funded scholarships for women to go to college.
Granville T. Woods
Granville T. Woods (1856–1910) was nicknamed "The Black Edison" for the number of inventions he built and patented. Like Edison, Woods’ inventions were not focused on one industry.
Woods earned his first patent in 1884 for a steam boiler. He also invented a system for railroad braking, electric railroad systems, and devices to improve the telephone and telegraph. The telephone and telegraph patents were bought by Alexander Graham Bell's company.
In 1887, Woods invented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. It allowed railroad workers to know where the trains were on the railway. Before this no one knew precisely when a train was coming down the tracks. Woods's invention prevented many collisions and deaths. He registered twenty patents between 1900 and 1907 for electronic train control devices.
Inca to Carver
Although George Washington Carver came up with many uses for peanuts, he was not the one to invent peanut butter. The ancient Incas of Peru were known to grind peanuts into a paste-like spread. Dr. Ambrose Straub patented a machine to make peanut butter in 1903. John Harvey Kellogg sold a nut butter spread in 1890. Mr. Kellogg is better known for another food inventionKellogg's Corn Flakes.
The Real McCoy
Elijah McCoy (1844 -1929) invented a lubricating cup for trains. Before McCoy, trains had to stop in order for workers to grease the gears by hand. If they didnt, the expensive machinery would break. McCoys inventions made it possible for locomotives to automatically lubricate instead of the old manual method, improving efficiency. He is the man behind the phrase The Real McCoy.
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May 20, 2022
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