n pre- and post-Civil War America, African-Americans suffered the bonds of
slavery, and faced the discouragement of postwar poverty and legal discrimination in the educational system. Yet, a quick look back through our
country's history shows that despite these obstacles, African-Americans are
well represented on America's list of important inventors.
As the saying goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention," and as these Americans
looked around their world and saw things that needed changing, they rose above
their circumstances, showing the best of human intellect and determination.
You might not recognize the names you see on the following pages, but you'll be
surprised at how familiar their inventions are in your everyday life! And, while their
individual stories are important in American history, as a group, the people behind
the names demonstrate that human imagination and our drive to better ourselves
are powerful tools that can overcome great odds.
Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894)
Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852-1889)
Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Charles Drew (1904-1950)
Percy Julian (1899-1975)
Black Inventors and Their Creations
Frederick McKinley Jones (1892-1961)
Dr. Patricia Bath (1942- )
Shirley A. Jackson (1946- )
Lewis Latimer (1848-1928)
Garrett Morgan (1877-1963)
William Hunter Dammond (1873-1956)
World Book Online
Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy
of African-American Achievement
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alan Steinberg
Great Negroes Past and Present
by Russell L. Adams
Black Firsts: 2,000 Years of Extraordinary Achievement
by Jessie Carney Smith
Black Inventors
by Nathan Aaseng
African-American Firsts: Famous, little-known and
unsung triumphs of blacks in America
by Joan Potter with Constance Claytor
Written by Susan McDaniel
Designed and illustrated by Pyrographic Media
Photography by PhotoDisc∆
Copyright KRP, Inc. All rights reserved.
Born in New Orleans, Norbert Rillieux was the son of a wealthy, white
plantation master and a slave mother. When Norbert was born, his father
could declare him free or a slave. Most plantation owners would have
declared him a slave, but Norbertí s father declared him free, which gave
Norbert access to education and other ì whiteî privileges.
As a young man, Rillieux was sent to L'Ecole Central in Paris, France, to
be educated as an engineer. After graduating, he returned to Louisiana
and became one of the most famous engineers in the state.
Despite his professional success, Rillieux eventually returned
to France because of increasing restrictions on blacks
in Louisiana.
n the 1830s, sugar was an expensive luxury. The process
used to extract the sugar from sugar cane or sugar beets
was slow and costly. But more important to Rillieux was that
the process was dangerous and required the back-breaking
labor of slaves. Even after that process, sugar at the time was
a brown and sticky mass, rather than the fine white crystals we use
today. Rillieux developed a process that was safer, more efficient,
less costly, and produced higher quality granulated sugar. This not
only made sugar affordable to the masses but drastically changed
the food-manufacturing industry and our eating habits.
1. Find and read articles in your newspaper that are profiles of people. Then, choose one of the inventors profiled in this section and
read more about him or her, looking for details that a newspaper
profile includes. Using the information in this section and other
resources, write a newspaper-style profile for this inventor.
2. A headline is supposed to make you want to read a story in a newspaper. Take your profile from the previous activity and write three
headlines for it, each one concentrating on a different angle of the
story. Which headline is most interesting to you? Which would be
most interesting to your parents? Your friends? Choose the headline
you think would pique the interest of the most people.
Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in Dutch Guiana to a
Dutch father and Surinamese mother. At the age of 10,
he went to work in his fatherí s machine shop. Later,
though barely able to speak English, Matzeliger earned
his way to the United States by working as a sailor.
Once on U.S. soil he worked in Philadelphia for a
while before moving to Lynn, Mass., where, at 18, he
went to work in a shoe factory.
ust six years after landing in the United States,
Matzeliger revolutionized the American shoe industry by
inventing a machine that opened the doors for the mass
production of shoes. Before Matzeliger's invention, only
part of a shoe was made by machine. The last step ñ
shaping the leather over the form of a human foot and
stitching it to the sole of the shoe ñ is called lasting and lasting was still
being done by hand. So, no matter how fast the rest of a shoe could
be manufactured, this final step ñ the hand work ñ slowed the production of shoes to only 40 to 50 shoes per worker per day. Because they
were handmade, shoes were expensive.
Many inventors had tried, and failed, to create a machine to perform
this final step. It was believed throughout the shoe industry that it
simply couldní t be done. Matzeliger was determined and worked for
years to create a machine that could complete the shoemaking
process. In 1882, he applied for a patent, sending a diagram of his
lasting machine to the Washington patent office. The drawings were
so complicated that patent officers couldn't understand them; they
actually visited Matzeliger to see the model. His patent was awarded
in 1883. Because of Matzeliger's invention, Lynn, Mass., became the
shoe capital of the world.
3. Working in small groups, brainstorm ideas for an invention that
would make your lives easier. Then, invent it! Work your ideas out
on paper, research options, and, if possible, build a prototype or
diagram to show to the class.
Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker was born in Louisiana in 1867 the daughter of former
slaves. Orphaned at the age of 6, she and her sister survived by working in the cotton fields.
At 14 she married C.J. Walker and had a daughter. Her husband died a few years later,
though, and she found herself a widow at 20. To support herself and her daughter, she
worked as a laundry woman. During the 1890s, she began to lose her hair and started
to experiment with home remedies. She eventually developed a line of hair products and cosmetics that made Madame Walker America's first self-made female
millionaire ó of any color.
"I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there
I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the
cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of
manufacturing hair goods and preparations. ... I have built my
own factory on my own ground." - Madame C.J. Walker
alkerí s most famous invention was a way
to straighten hair chemically. Before her
product, black women who wanted straight
hair had to press their hair with a flat iron.
Her hair softener and straightening comb
made straightening hair easy and affordable.
Walkerí s line of hair products and cosmetics opened the door for
a beauty and cosmetics industry that catered to black women.
Perhaps more importantly, her company gave thousands of black
women an opportunity for meaningful employment.
ì If I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been
willing to work hard," she said.
4. With your invention in mind, find out how to apply for a patent.
What does it cost? How long does it take? What steps do you
need to follow?
Dr. Charles Drew was born into a middle-class family in
Washington, D.C. He was the eldest of five children. Drewí s parents emphasized the importance of hard work and by the age of
12, Drew was selling newspapers and contributing to the family
income. Just a year later, he had six kids working for him.
In high school, Drew was a star on the playing field and in the classroom. He
earned varsity letters in four sports and won two James E. Walker medals for athletic performance. After high school Drew headed to Amherst College in
Massachusetts on an athletic scholarship. He graduated from Amherst with both
scholastic and athletic honors in 1926. Drew put himself through medical school at
McGill University in Montreal, earning his medical degree in 1933. In 1940, he
became the first black American to earn a doctor of science degree, which he
received from Columbia University.
r. Drew discovered how to preserve blood
plasma in what is now known as blood banks.
Because of his discovery, blood can now be
stored in large quantities for use in emergencies
for blood transfusions. Dr. Drew established and
was the first director of the American Red Cross
blood bank, and organized the world's first blood-bank drive.
Though he died before reaching 50, his lifeí s work saved
thousands of lives during World War II and has saved millions
of lives since then.
5. A patent protects an invention for a specified number of
years. After that, anyone can manufacture the product.
Conduct research on patent laws to find out how long a
patented invention is protected. Do you think it's long
enough or too long? Write a letter to the editor expressing
your opinion.
Percy Julian, the son of a railway clerk, was born in
Montgomery, Ala. In elementary school, he proved himself
to be a bright student, but Montgomery did not provide
education to black students after the eighth grade. Julian
continued to study, however, and was able to enter
Depauw University in Indiana as a "sub-freshman." Though
he had to take several classes to catch up to his classmates, Julian was valedictorian of his class and graduated
with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1920. He completed his
masterí s degree at Harvard, thanks to an Austin Fellowship
in Chemistry, and earned his doctorate at the University of
Vienna in Austria.
Through his scientific discoveries and strong work ethic,
Julian became a millionaire and president of two companies.
ntil the late 1930s, the only help for arthritis sufferers
was a very expensive form of sterols. The high cost
made the treatments available only to the upper classes.
Julian discovered a way to extract a similar chemical from
the humble (and plentiful) soybean. His discovery reduced
the cost of sterols from hundreds of dollars a gram to just
20 cents a gram, allowing people of virtually any socio-economic class
to afford treatment for arthritis.
Toward the end of his life, Julian's work contributed to advances in the
treatment of glaucoma and in the production of sex hormones, which
helped lead to the development of birth control pills.
6. Still thinking of your invention, go through the ads in your newspaper and, using them as a guide, create an advertisement for your
invention. When writing the ad, define who will buy your new product and design the ad for that audience.
7. Many people inform the public about their products or services by
writing press releases to a newspaper. A newspaper editor reads
through these releases and might choose one that is informative or
interesting to run in the paper. Do research on how to write a press
release, then write one for your group's invention. Will the audience
you write for be the same as the audience for your ad?
he following is a list of African-American inventors and their creations. As you
go through the list, pay attention to the things you might be using or experience the benefits of every day. Keep in mind, though, that more than one
patent can (and usually is) awarded for the same type of machine. For
example, the horseshoe listed below might have its own patent because of
a variation in shape or how it is attached to a horse's hoof.
Patent Dates
A.P. Ashbourne
Biscuit cutter
Nov. 30, 1875
A.L. Cralle
L.C. Bailey
Folding bed
July 18, 1899
W.R. Davis Jr.
A.J. Beard
Rotary engine
July 5, 1892
C.J. Dorticus
A.J. Beard
Car coupler
Nov. 23, 1897
T. Elkins
G.E. Becket
Letter box
Oct. 4, 1892
F. Flemings Jr.
L. Bell
Locomotive smoke stack
May 23, 1871
G.F. Grant
M.E. Benjamin
Gong and signal chairs for hotels
July 17, 1888
J. Gregory
M.W. Binga
Street sprinkling apparatus
July 22, 1879
M. Headen
A.B. Blackburn
Railway signal
Jan. 10, 1888
B.F. Jackson
Henry Blair
Corn planter
Oct. 14, 1834
J.L. Love
Henry Blair
Cotton planter
Aug. 31, 1836
T.J. Marshall
C.B. Brooks
Street sweepers
March 17, 1896
Elijah McCoy
O.E. Brown
Aug. 23, 1892
J.F. Pickering
J.A. Burr
Lawn mower
May 9, 1899
W.B. Purvis
J.W. Butts
Luggage carrier
Oct. 10, 1899
H. Spears
W.C. Carter
Umbrella stand
Aug. 4, 1885
Rufus Stokes
T.S. Church
Carpet beating machine
July 29, 1884
E.H. Sutton
G. Cook
Automatic fishing device
May 10, 1899
Granville T. Woods
P.W. Cornwall
Draft regulator
Feb. 7, 1893
Patent rules passed in 1793 and 1836 allowed slaves to legally patent their inventions. Despite these rules, however, an invention was often stolen by a slave's
owner, who would patent it in his name.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859), a dry cleaner and tailor in New York City,
patented a dry-cleaning process on March 3, 1821. He is believed to be the first
African-American to receive a patent.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------In 1895, the U.S. Patent Office advertised a special exhibit of the inventions of
blacks. It was the organization's first such exhibit.
Patent Dates
Ice-cream mold
Feb. 2, 1897
Library table
Sept. 24, 1878
Machine for embossing photos
April 16, 1895
Refrigerating apparatus
Nov. 4, 1879
Guitar (variation)
March 3, 1886
Golf tee
Dec. 12, 1899
April 26, 1887
Foot power hammer
Oct. 5, 1886
Gas burner
April 4, 1899
Pencil sharpener
Fire extinguisher (variation)
May 26, 1872
Lubricator for steam engines
July 2, 1872
Fountain pen
Portable shield for infantry
Dec. 27, 1870
Air-purification device
Cotton cultivator
April 7, 1878
Electromechanical brake
Aug. 16, 1887
In 1830, only 544 inventions were patented in the United States. By 1860,
there were more than 4,000. Between 1870 and 1910, the patent office had
registered 1 million patents.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The first black woman to receive a patent was Sarah Goode, owner of a
Chicago furniture store. Her patented invention was a folding cabinet bed,
similar to today's pullout couch. She received her patent in 1885.
8. Setting up a business to manufacture your invention will take money. Go
through the ads in your paper and cut out those that are advertising banking
or lending services. As a class, discuss which lending institution you would
approach for a loan.
9. Thumb through several days of the paper looking for articles on new
inventions. Where did the articles appear? In the business section? The
features section? The news section? The front page? Why do you think
each article appeared in its section? Discuss as a class.
10. Patent disputes between inventors are common. Thomas Edison spent
years defending himself and his inventions in court. Lewis Latimer, profiled
in this section, was Edison's chief patent expert, helping Edison win most
of his patent disputes. Read more on Lewis Latimer on Page 13, then
write a newspaper-style article on his involvement with patent disputes.
Frederick McKinley Jones grew up an orphan in Cincinnati. He
attended school only through sixth grade, but through curiosity
and constant experimentation, he became a self-taught master
of electronic devices.
Jones made a career for himself working as an automobile
mechanic as well as designing movie sound equipment at the
time when silent movies were turning into ì talkies.î
Over his career, Jones patented 61 inventions.
fter a conversation with a truck driver who
had lost a shipment of chickens because
the trip had taken too long, Jones invented
a practical refrigeration system for trucks
and railroad cars. This invention revolutionized the eating habits of the country.
Refrigerated trucks and railroad cars allow fresh foods,
such as meat, to be transported and marketed throughout the country, year-round. Until his refrigeration invention, and before refrigeration of any type, foods would
spoil before they could be shipped. It also lead to the
international food market and the frozen food industry.
Jones patented his device in 1940, the first of 40 patents
in the area of mobile refrigeration equipment.
11. A few years ago, the software giant Microsoft was in
the news almost daily because of patent disputes.
With your teacher's approval, go online or back
through newspaper archives to see what all the fuss
was about.
Dr. Patricia Bath, an ophthalmologist, was born in Harlem in
New York City. Her father, Rupert Bath, came to the United
States from Trinidad and became the first black motorman for
the New York City subways. Her mother, Gladys, was descended from African slaves and Cherokee Indians. She was determined Patricia and her brother would have the best education
possible. When Patricia was in middle school, her mother went
to work cleaning peopleÌ s homes. "She scrubbed floors so I
could go to medical school," Bath said.
After graduating from the Howard University School of Medicine,
Dr. Bath became the first African-American woman surgeon at
the UCLA Medical Center and the first woman on the faculty of
the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. She is also the first AfricanAmerican woman doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention. Dr. Bath has focused her career and research on the prevention, care, and treatment of blindness.
n 1988, Dr. Bath patented the Cataract Laserphaco
Probe. This device uses the power of a laser to
quickly and painlessly vaporize cataracts from
patientsÌ eyes. With this invention, Dr. Bath was able
to give sight back to several people who had been
blind for more than 30 years.
Prior to Dr. BathÌ s invention, cataracts were removed manually with a mechanical grinding device.
12. Once you have read up on the Microsoft case, decide where
you would have stood on the issue. Discuss as a class.
13. After reading about the inventors in this section, think
about what it takes to be an inventor. Do you see any similarities in their personalities? Go to the classified ad section of your newspaper and read through some of the ads
to see how they're written, then write your own classified
ad for an inventor.
Shirley A. Jackson was born in Washington, D.C.
Her early interest in math and science was encouraged by her father, who would help her with class
projects. Jackson was an honor student throughout
her early education and after high school enrolled in
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As one of
only a few black students at MIT, Jackson was treated differently by her classmates, and some faculty
even tried to discourage her interest in physics. But
Jackson persevered and became the first AfricanAmerican woman to receive a doctorate in the field
of particle physics. While at MIT, Jackson co-founded the Black Student Union to encourage more
African-Americans to attend the prestigious school.
She has received numerous awards and honors
throughout her career, including Scientist of the Year
in 1973 and being named chair of the U. S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission by President Clinton in 1995.
In 1999 she became president of the Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute, and in 2001 was named
Black Engineer of the Year. In 2009, President
Barack Obama appointed Jackson to serve on the
President's Council of Advisors on Science
and Technology.
fter college, Jackson worked at Bell Laboratories, the
research division of AT&T. There she made advances in the
field of telecommunications that led to the development of
the touch-tone telephone and fiber optic cables. Her work
also made Call Waiting and Caller ID possible.
14. Choose one of the inventors listed on Page 8 or Page 9 and find out
more about him or her. Write a short profile on the inventor and
share it with the class.
15. Looking through your newspaper, can you find an article on an
inventor living in your area? If so, invite him or her to speak to your
class. Be sure to prepare a list of reporter's questions.
Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Mass., a son of fugitive slaves. The Latimers moved
frequently to avoid being hauled back to slavery. Latimer's father eventually abandoned
the family, throwing the family into poverty. After a series of odd jobs and a short stint in
the U.S. Navy, Latimer taught himself drafting and became a draftsman for a patent firm.
While there, he drafted the patent drawings for the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell
and Thomas Edison. Edison eventually hired Latimer, who became Edison Electric Light
Co.'s chief draftsman and patent expert. He was the only black member of Edison's
research team of noted scientists. As a patent expert, Latimer spent years serving as an
expert witness in court battles over Edisoní s inventions.
hough Edison invented the incandescent
(or glowing) light bulb, the filament he
used was made of paper, which was unreliable and burned up after only a short time.
This kept the light bulb from having much
practical use. Latimer invented a process for
creating a stronger carbon filament that could burn for
hundreds of hours. His invention made light bulbs
practical for everyday use.
After his invention, Latimer wrote the first book on
electric lighting, and supervised the installation of
public electric lights throughout New York,
Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.
16. Look through the ads in the newspaper and
choose a product that you are particularly thankful
for (a computer, DVD player, favorite soft drink,
etc.). Now, conduct research to find out how that
product was invented. Was there one inventor or
many who built on previous inventions?
Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky just north of Lexington. His
mother and father, former slaves, supported their family on a
small farm. Morgan attended school through fifth grade then
quit to look for a job. At 14, he headed for Cincinnati in
hopes of finding better employment opportunities.
Knowing the value of education, he hired a tutor to continue his education in English grammar. After years of
working odd jobs, he headed to Cleveland, where he
discovered a talent for fixing sewing machines. In
1907, Morgan opened his own sewing equipment and repair shop ñ the first of several
businesses he would establish. A successful
businessman, Morgan was the first black
man in Cleveland to buy an automobile.
larmed by the death of 146 workers in
the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New
York in 1911, Morgan designed a helmet
that would protect a firefighter from smoke
and deadly fumes. On July 25, 1916, he
used his invention to rescue several men
trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel.
The rescue made headlines and his company received
orders from fire departments around the country. During
World War II, a refined version of the Morgan gas mask
was used by the U.S. Army, and in 1921, a later model
won a gold medal at the International Exposition of
Sanitation and Safety, and a gold medal from the
International Association of Fire Chiefs.
17. With that favorite invention in mind, think about how
you would improve it. Now take that a step further
and try to work out the details of just how that
improvement would work, or if it would work.
William Hunter Dammond was born in Pittsburgh to a middle-class family. He was
the fifth of eight children. At a time when many African-Americans had little opportunity for education, Dammond had the unique experience of attending the Park
Institute, a white preparatory school. Because of the high quality of education he
received at this school, Dammond was able to enroll in the civil engineering program at the Western University of Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh) in 1889.
He graduated with honors in 1893 and became the first black to graduate from the
University of Pittsburgh.
After graduation, Dammond worked in various careers, including teaching. But he
found his niche in the railroad industry, where he invented several mechanisms and
systems that made railroads safer for workers as well as passengers and cargo.
Dammond was an assistant bridge engineer at the Michigan Central Railroad in
Detroit, then moved to London, England, where he was a bridge designer for the
Marcum Co. While in England he continued to improve the railroad industry with
his inventions.
Dammond returned to the United States in 1916 and spent much of his time promoting his inventions and fighting for recognition and compensation for them.
he railroad company Dammond worked for operated one of the most heavily trafficked sections of rail
in the United States. In an effort to prevent accidents at
the rail intersections, Diamond created a special traffic
light. His light showed green when it was safe to go, red
as a warning to stop, and orange to advise caution. He patented
his traffic light in 1906.
18. Many of the inventors in this section invented more than just
the item profiled. Go to the library and find out what other
inventions they might have created.
19. This section holds only a few of the many African-American
inventors in our country's history. In small groups, learn about
three more African-American inventors, then present your
findings to the class.