1. Archive

The inventors

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment concerns the inventive spirit.

We will never know how many early American inventions were created by black people. Slaves were not allowed to hold patents because they were not citizens.

Some free blacks made considerable contributions to technology that were recognized. Benjamin Bannaker, who bought his freedom, is credited with building in 1761 a wooden striking clock so accurate that it kept perfect time and struck each hour for more than 20 years. It was perhaps the first clock built in America.

The first black person to receive a patent was Henry Blair of Maryland, who invented a seed planter in 1834. In 1846, Norbert Rillieux of Louisiana patented a vacuum pan that revolutionized the sugar refining process.

It has been speculated that some or most of the work on Cyrus McCormick's grain harvester was done by Jo Anderson, a slave.

After the Civil War, however, black inventors could receive credit for their work. Though 80 percent of black adults in the United States were illiterate because they had been denied an education, between 1870 and 1900, blacks received several hundred patents.

In 1883, Jan Matzeliger, an immigrant from Dutch Guinea, patented a lasting machine, which mechanized the shoe industry. Previously, shoes had been made and repaired by hand. His shoemaking method was adopted by factories all over the world.

Around 1885, Granville T. Woods of Cincinnati began work on several inventions. One of his patents was for a system of sending telegrams from a train in motion. He also invented a steam boiler furnace, an incubator and an automatic air brake.

Some other black inventors and their inventions:

Garrett A. Morgan, the first traffic light and the gas mask.

Otis Boykin, a control unit for artificial heart stimulators, a resistor used in guided missiles and a burglar-proof cash register.

Lewis Latimer, employed by Alexander Graham Bell to make the patent drawings for the first telephone.

Lewis Temple, a toggle harpoon that helped double the catch of the whale industry.

William Purvis, a machine for making paper bags.

Andrew Beard, an automatic railroad car coupler.


Source: Negro Almanac, African-American History

Discussion questions

1. Why were slaves prohibited from holding patents?

2. Only two black Americans, one of them an inventor, have ever appeared on a U.S. coin together. Who were they and why were they depicted together?

3. What was Charles Drew's contribution to science? Explain the irony of his contribution and his death.