Since this column is about inventors,
it's probably about inventors, right?
Right. Yet you won't find the names
of Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell or the Wright
brothers anywhere on this list of great inventors. What kind of
story about great inventors could possibly exclude some of the best
of all time?
That would be like discussing the
greatest baseball players of all time without mentioning Babe Ruth.
Or great presidents without mentioning Abraham Lincoln. Or great war
heroes without mentioning the French. Oh, sorry, wrong joke.
The inventors profiled in this story
were all black, and February is Black History Month.
When people think of black
inventors, the first name that usually comes to mind is that of
George Washington Carver.
While Carver was the most prolific
black inventor in history, there's one inventor who had the
distinction of working for both Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham
Bell. That would be Lewis Latimer, who invented the carbon filament
that went into Edison's incandescent light and also drafted the
blueprints for Bell's telephone. Latimer was born to former slaves
in 1848; his father's light skin once enabled him to pass himself
off as a plantation owner.
The fact that Judy Reed was
illiterate didn't stop her from becoming one of the first two black
women to obtain patents. She patented a hand-operated machine for
kneading and rolling dough in 1884. Next was Chicago resident Sarah
Goode, when she patented a cabinet bed a year later.
Sarah Breedlove Walker was a teenage
mother and then a 20-year-old widow, but that didn't stop her from
developing a complete line of hair care and beauty products in the
early 1900s. She parlayed her business into a fortune and became
America's first female black millionaire -- a modern-day Oprah --
and went on to share her wealth with black charities.
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in this article]
There were times in the 1800s when slaves
were not allowed to own property, and this included patents. It wasn't
until 1861 that, ironically, a Confederate law gave slaves the right to
own patents. Nine years later, all black inventors -- male and female --
had the right to own patents.
Benjamin Banneker's grandmother was
an indentured servant and his grandfather was a slave. Yet in 1753
he built the first watch made in America. He also wrote the Farmer's
Almanac for six years, sending his first one to then-Secretary of
State Thomas Jefferson. The irony is that Jefferson himself was a
slave owner (he was also an inventor). Ah, the things that you learn
from reading your newspaper every day.
Blacks don't face as many obstacles
today as they did in the 1700s and 1800s, but they still don't have
the name recognition that they deserve. Each of the following 10
inventions was created by a black inventor. How many of the
inventors can you name?
Crop rotation, traffic light, gas
mask, fountain pen, lawn mower, typewriter, golf tee, automatic gear
shift, potato chips and the blood bank that served as a model for
the Red Cross blood banks.
Here's the list again, this time
with the names of the inventors:
Crop rotation, George Washington
Carver; traffic light, Garrett Morgan; gas mask, Garrett Morgan
again; fountain pen, William Purvis; lawn mower, John Burr;
typewriter, Lee Burridge; golf tee, Dr. George Grant; automatic gear
shift, Richard Spikes; potato chips, George Crum; and the blood
bank, Dr. Charles Richard Drew, who was also the first director of
the Red Cross.
Earlier in this column, we listed
several hall of fame white inventors, but only six black inventors
have been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Paul Niemann is the author of Invention Mysteries. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright Paul Niemann 2005