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

Invention Mysteries: Celebrate Black History Month with these inventors

Celebrate Black History Month with these inventors          By Paul Niemann

[FEB. 1, 2007]  February is Black History Month, so we recognize some of America's top black inventors whose contributions have played a significant role in benefiting society. Each of these inventors overcame the fact that they were born to slaves or former slaves.

The most prolific inventor was agricultural chemist George Washington Carver. He was born to slave parents on a farm in Diamond Grove, Mo., (near Joplin) sometime between 1860 and 1864; the exact year is not known because accurate records of slave families were not always kept.

Carver 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 in Colchester, Ontario, Canada, to former slaves. McCoy's automatic oiling cup for trains became known as "The Real McCoy" when engineers began asking for it by name.

There was probably no inventor who surrounded himself with better company than Lewis Latimer did. Latimer (1848-1928) of Chelsea, Mass., 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 that lasted only 30 hours and shattered when it got too hot.

The gas mask that Garrett Morgan invented saved the lives of thousands of soldiers in World War I. Morgan (1877-1963) of Paris, Ky., even used one of his gas masks to help rescue men trapped by a gas explosion in a tunnel that was being built under Lake Erie. Morgan also invented the first automatic traffic signal.

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The first black woman to become a millionaire was Sarah Breedlove Walker, aka Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919) of Delta, La. Perhaps no one faced more harsh obstacles than Madame Walker. An orphan at age 6 and a widow at age 20, she faced racial discrimination as well as gender 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 and built a business empire in which she 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 (1875-1950), born in New Canton, Va., 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.

The group that Woodson 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.

Even though the Civil War had ended, slavery left many of these inventors poor, and blacks were not welcome in many parts of America. The fact that they had little -- if any -- schooling makes their achievements even more incredible.

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2007

(Text copied from file received from Paul Niemann)

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