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Colors of Innovation

Famous African American Inventors of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries


George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver

Mary Bellis
What were African American inventors inventing during the 19th and early 20th centuries?

Lewis Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848. He enlisted in the Union Navy at the age of 15 and upon completion of his military service, returned to Massachusetts and was employed by a patent solicitor where he began the study of drafting. His talent for drafting and his creative genius led him to invent a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp. In 1881, he supervised installation of electric light in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. Latimer was the original draftsman for Thomas Edison and as such was the star witness in Edison’s infringement suits. Latimer had many interests. He was a draftsman, engineer, author, poet, musician, and, at the same time, a devoted family man and philanthropist.

Granville T. Woods

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856, Granville T. Woods dedicated his life to developing a variety of inventions relating to the railroad industry. To some he was known as the "Black Edison". Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and many more for controlling the flow of electricity. His most noted invention was a system for letting the engineer of a train know how close his train was to others. This device helped cut down accidents and collisions between trains.[] Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to Woods’ "telegraphony," enabling him to become a full-time inventor. Among his other top inventions were a steam boiler furnace and an automatic air brake used to slow or stop trains. Wood’s electric car was powered by overhead wires. It was the third rail system to keep cars running on the right track.

Success led to law suits filed by Thomas Edison. Woods eventually won, but Edison didn’t give up easily when he wanted something. Trying to win Woods over, and his inventions, Edison offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods, preferring his independence, declined.

George Washington Carver

When you can do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world. - George Washington Carver.

"He could have added fortune to fame, but, caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world." George Washington Carver’s epitaph sums up a life-time of innovative discovery. Born into slavery, freed as a child, curious throughout life, Carver profoundly affected the lives of people throughout the nation. He successfully shifted Southern farming away from risky cotton, which depletes soil of its nutrients, to nitrate-producing crops such as peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, pecans, and soybeans. Farmers began rotating crops of cotton one year with peanuts the next.

Carver spent his early childhood with a German couple who encouraged his education and early interest in plants. He received his early education in Missouri and Kansas. He was accepted into Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, in 1877 and in 1891, transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) where he earned a B.S. in 1894 and an M.S. in 1897. Later that year Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, convinced Carver to serve as the school’s director of agriculture. From his laboratory at Tuskegee, Carver developed 325 different uses for peanuts--until then considered lowly food fit for hogs--and 118 products from the sweet potato. Other Carver innovations include synthetic marble from sawdust, plastics from woodshavings, and writing paper from wisteria vines.

Carver only patented three of his many discoveries. "God gave them to me," he said, "How can I sell them to someone else?" Upon his death, Carver contributed his life savings to establish a research institute at Tuskegee. His birthplace was declared a national monument in 1953, and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.

Elijah McCoy

So, you want the "real McCoy?" That means you want the "real thing," what you know to be of the highest quality, not an inferior imitation. The saying may refer to a famous African American inventor named Elijah McCoy. He earned more than 50 patents, but the most famous one was for a metal or glass cup that fed oil to bearings through a smallbore tube. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators may have originated the term, "the real McCoy."

McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1843, the son of slaves who had fled Kentucky. Educated in Scotland, he returned to the United States to pursue a position in his field of mechanical engineering. The only job available to him was that of a locomotive fireman/oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad. Because of his training, he was able to identify and solve the problems of engine lubrication and overheating. Railroad and shipping lines began using McCoy’s new lubricators, and Michigan Central promoted him to an instructor in the use of his new inventions.

Later, McCoy moved to Detroit where he became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters.Unfortunately, success slipped away from McCoy, and he died in an infirmary after suffering financial, mental, and physical breakdown.

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