The most prolific black
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 community.
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 years old.
Sounds like George Washington Carver was the real McCoy among
No, that would be Elijah McCoy, a Canadian 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
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
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 incredible.
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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
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, leading 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. 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 Frederick Douglass.
Like 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.
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Copyright Paul Niemann 2006