STEAMFUNK MAD SCIENTISTS & MECHANICS: Black Inventors of the Steam Age!
This month, I feature the Mad Scientists / Inventors and Mechanics / Tinkerers.
As always, your feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
What we know about early African-American innovators comes mostly from the work of Henry Baker, who was an assistant patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office. Baker was dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the contributions of Black inventors.
Around 1900, the Patent Office – under Baker’s guidance, conducted a survey to gather information about Black inventors and their inventions. Letters were sent to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors, and prominent African-Americans. Henry Baker recorded the replies and followed-up on leads. Baker’s research also provided the information used to select Black inventions exhibited at the Cotton Centennial in New Orleans, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta.
By the time of his death, Henry Baker had compiled four massive volumes of Black inventors and their inventions, called The Baker Papers.
Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis 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 an improved toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars, in 1874; and a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp in 1881. Also 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 trains and street cars. To some he was known as the “Black Edison”. Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and nearly fifty more for controlling the flow of electricity.
In 1887 he patented his most noted invention – the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, a device that sent messages between train stations and moving trains, informing the engineer of a train how close his train was to others. This device helped cut down accidents and collisions between trains.
In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called telegraphony, would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to the telegraphony, enabling Woods to become a full-time inventor.
Among Woods’ other top inventions were a steam boiler furnace and an automatic air brake used to slow or stop trains. His electric car, powered by overhead wires, was the third rail system to keep cars running on the right track.
Success led to law suits filed by that wicked little shark, Thomas Alva Edison, who claimed ownership of the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. Woods eventually won. Unable to defeat Woods, Edison became a stalker, wooing Woods and – in an attempt to win him, and his inventions over – offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods, wisely, declined.
George Washington Carver
Carver profoundly affected the lives of people throughout the world by successfully shifting 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.
From his laboratory at Tuskegee, Carver developed 325 different uses for the peanut, including 105 food recipes and over 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes (a biofuel), ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, wood stain, cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. He also developed 118 products from the sweet potato. Other Carver innovations include synthetic marble from sawdust, plastics from wood shavings, and writing paper from wisteria vines.
Upon his death in 1943, Carver contributed his life savings to establish a research institute at Tuskegee University. His birthplace was declared a national monument in 1953, and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.
When you say “I want the real McCoy”, you are saying you want the ‘real thing’ – what you know to be of the highest quality, not an inferior imitation. This saying refers to the famous African American inventor, Elijah McCoy, who earned 57 patents, most to do with lubrication of steam engines, but also including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators would demand “the real McCoy”.
McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1843, the son of slaves who fled Kentucky. Educated in Scotland, he relocated 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.
Jan Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) in 1852. He immigrated to the United States at age 18. After a while, he went to work in the Harney Brothers Shoes factory in Massachusetts. At the time, no machine could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. This had to be done manually by a “Hand Laster”; a skilled one could produce 50 pairs in a ten-hour day.
Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention – the Shoe Lasting Machine, which 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 – in 1883. His machine could produce up to 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half.
George “Speck” Crum
In 1853, french fries – thickly sliced fried potatoes, a concept brought to the U.S. from France by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s – were on the lodge’s menu.
It is said that George Crum was a tough, crusty old man who had previously been a trapper. If any of the diners at the Moon Lake Lodge had the nerve to complain about their food, Crum would release his wrath upon them. He would send back any food that had been returned to his kitchen, only after he made it nearly inedible.
On August 24, 1853, a customer complained that Crum’s french fries were “too thick”. George Crum grumbled, but he sliced the customer up a thinner batch of potatoes, fried them, and sent them back out to the dining room.
Still, the plate of potatoes were returned to the kitchen. The diner complained that they were still too thick. He also requested that his potatoes be crunchy.
This angered Crum. Hoping to gain personal satisfaction and annoy the complainer at the same time, Crum took his sharp knife and sliced another batch of potatoes as thin as he possibly could. Crum then fried the sliced potatoes in grease until they were hard and crunchy. There was no way now that the customer would be able to eat them with a fork! He then piled them on a plate, sprinkled an over generous amount of salt on them, and sent them back to the disgruntled diner.
Crum expected the customer to dislike them very much, but he actually loved them.
Crum dubbed his creation “Saratoga chips” or “potato crunches”.
They soon became so popular that they were made up in large batches, packaged in bags, and sold in New England.
Eventually, Crum left the Moon Lake Lodge and, in 1860 with the profits he made selling his new chips, started his own successful restaurant.
The chips remained a local delicacy until the Prohibition era, when an enterprising salesman named Herman Lay popularized the product throughout the Southeastern United States.
Stay tuned for more in the League of Extraordinary Black People Series. Next month: Adventurers / Explorers!