Black History Month, so we celebrate some of the top
African-American inventors whose contributions have played a
significant role in benefiting society. As with any kind of story
about the biggest, brightest or best, there's not enough room to
mention them all, so we'll take a look at several black inventors I
think are particularly interesting.
The most prolific
African-American inventor of all time is agricultural chemist George
Washington Carver. Born to slave parents on a farm near Joplin, Mo.,
in 1860, George spent much of his early years exploring the wooded
areas on the farm, becoming known as the "plant doctor" in his
George invented more than 300
uses for peanuts and hundreds of additional uses for other plants.
Some of the products resulting from Carver's work are adhesives,
axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, ink, instant coffee,
linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic,
pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber and talcum
powder. Carver later became director of the Department of
Agricultural Research at Tuskegee University when he was just 36
Sounds like George Washington
Carver was the real McCoy among inventors, right?
No, that would be Elijah McCoy,
a Canada inventor born in 1844 to former slaves. McCoy's automatic
oiling cup for trains became known as "the real McCoy" when
engineers began asking for it by name.
Staying on the subject of
trains, Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) invented a telegraph that
allowed moving trains to communicate with other trains and with
train stations. This improved railway efficiency and safety and also
made it harder for bandits to rob trains. In addition to having a
really cool first name, Woods was nicknamed "the black Edison." He
was awarded more than 60 patents during his lifetime.
There was probably no inventor
who surrounded himself with better company than Lewis Latimer did.
Latimer (1848-1929) was the only inventor who worked with both
Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. First he helped Bell draft
his blueprints for the telephone; then he and a co-worker created
the carbon filament for Edison's electric light bulb. This replaced
Edison's bamboo filament, which lasted only 30 hours and shattered
when it got too hot. Latimer and his co-worker also created the
process for making the carbon filaments.
[to top of
second column in this article]
The parents of some of
America's greatest black inventors were slaves and, even though the
Civil War had ended, slavery had left many of them poor. Blacks were
not welcome in many parts of America, and the fact that they had
little if any schooling makes their achievements even more
The gas mask that Garrett
Morgan invented saved the lives of thousands of soldiers in World
War I. Morgan (1875-1963) even used one of his gas masks to help
rescue men trapped by a gas explosion in a tunnel being built under
Lake Erie. Morgan also invented the automatic traffic signal.
The first black woman inventor
to achieve millionaire status was Sarah Breedlove Walker, aka Madame
C.J. Walker (1867-1919). Perhaps no one faced harsher obstacles than
Madame Walker. A widow at age 20, she faced racial discrimination as
well as sex discrimination.
Madame Walker created a new
hair process with the aid of the straightening comb that she
invented and patented in 1905. She developed a line of cosmetics for
black women that led to a business empire that employed more than
3,000 people. She later shared her wealth with many black charities.
So who invented Black History
Month? And why was February chosen as the month to celebrate it?
Dr. Carter Woodson led a group
of black and white scholars in establishing Negro History Week in
Chicago in 1926. Dr. Woodson chose a week in February because it's
the month in which two people who had a huge impact on the lives of
black Americans were born -- Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist
many of the inventors profiled in this story, Woodson was the son of
former slaves and was born into poverty. The group that he founded,
the Association for the Study of African American Life and History,
expanded Negro History Week into Black History Month in 1976 as part
of the nation's bicentennial celebration.
is written each week by Paul Niemann, who can be reached at
© Copyright Paul Niemann 2004
Last week's column in LDN:
"Here's a brief history of milestone
patents, copyrights and trademarks"