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Colors of Innovation

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


Madame Walker

Madame Walker

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

Jan Matzeliger

Jan Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana in 1852. He immigrated to the United States at age 18 and went to work in a shoe factory in Philadelphia. Shoes then were hand made, a slow tedious process. Matzeliger helped revolutionize the shoe industry by developing a shoe lasting machine that would attach the sole to the shoe in one minute.

The shoe lasting machine adjusts the shoe leather upper snugly over the mold, arranges the leather under the sole and pins it in place with nails while the sole is stitched to the leather upper.

Jan Matzeliger died poor, but his stock in the machine was quite valuable. He left it to his friends and to the First Church of Christ in Lynn, Masschusetts.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877. As a self-educated man, he went on to make an explosive entry into the field of technology. He invented a gas inhalator when he, his brother, and some volunteers were rescuing a group of men caught by an explosion in a smoke-filled tunnel under Lake Erie. Although this rescue earned Morgan a gold medal from the City of Cleveland and the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York, he was unable to market his gas inhalator because of racial prejudice. However, the U.S. Army used his device as gas masks for combat troops during World War I. Today, fire fighters save lives because, by wearing a similar breathing device, they are able to enter burning buildings without harm from smoke or fumes.

Garrett Morgan used his gas inhalator fame to sell his patented traffic signal with a flag-type signal to the General Electric Company for use at street intersections to control the flow of traffic.

Madame Walker

Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker better known as Madame Walker, together with Marjore Joyner improved the hair care and cosmetics industry early in the 20th century.

Madame Walker was born in 1867 in poverty-stricken rural Louisiana. Walker was the daughter of former slaves, orphaned at the age of seven and widowed by 20. After her husband’s death, the young widow migrated to St. Louis, Missouri, seeking a better way of life for herself and her child. She supplemented her income as a wash woman by selling her homemade beauty products door-to-door. Eventually, Walker’s products formed the basis of a thriving national corporation employing at one point over 3,000 people. Her Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of Black women. Madame Walker’s aggressive marketing strategy combined with relentless ambition led her to be labeled as the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.

An employee of Madame Walker’s empire, Marjorie Joyner, invented a permanent wave machine. This device, patented in 1928, curled or "permed" women’s hair for a relatively lengthy period of time. The wave machine was popular among women white and black allowing for longer-lasting wavy hair styles. Joyner went on to become a prominent figure in Madame Walker’s industry, though she never profited directly from her invention, for it was the assigned property of the Walker Company.

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