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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Celebrate Black History Month with these inventors          By Paul Niemann

[FEB. 9, 2006]  February is Black History Month, so we celebrate some of the top black 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 whose stories are particularly interesting.

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 inventors, right?

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 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.

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 discrimination.

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.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at You can learn more by visiting

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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