The African Americans

Search for Truth and Knowledge

By Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.

Part Thirty-One: African American Inventors and Scientists

After the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, the United States entered and era of rapid industrial and technological development. The foundations of great national economic growth were established between 1870 and 1900.

African Americans played an important part in this development. The history of these inventors and scientists is one of the untold heroic stories of achievements against the odds. Who were these unsung heroes of American economic and industrial greatness? What were their backgrounds? What impact did their inventions have on America and the world?

Many Americans are familiar with the scientific work of George Washington Carver, the Wizard of Tuskegee Institute, whose discoveries of various uses of the peanut and sweet potato led to 300 by-products of several industries.


George Washington Carver (1864–1943)

All Americans owe an enormous debt to an extraordinary African American scientist George Washington Carver, who was born a slave in Diamond Grove, Missouri. He survived a very difficult childhood. His father was accidentally killed and his mother was abducted by slave raiders. When he was a young boy, George was once traded for a horse. In spite of these hardships, George Washington Carver overcame these obstacles and obtained a good education at Simpson College in Iowa where he was the first African American student. He completed his undergraduate college education at Iowa State College and obtained a Masters of Science degree in Agriculture and Botany concentrating on biology, chemistry, geometry and zoology.

After George Washington Carver completed his studies, he devoted his life to teaching at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and to research projects designed to improve southern agriculture. In fact, his research on the peanut, sweet potato and soybean helped to revolutionize the economy of the South and liberate it from excessive dependence on cotton planting. His devotion to research and helping others was legendary. His commitment to selflessly aiding humanity was so real he rarely patented any of his many discoveries. He believed his abilities were a gift of God. He said, "God gave them to me, how can I sell them to someone else?"


Granville T. Woods (1856–1910)

Other African American inventors and scientists were not as well known as George Washington Carver but their contributions were nevertheless important and a benefit to all Americans.

One great inventor was Granville T. Woods who was described in 1886 as "The equal, if not superior, to any inventor in the country." He was born April 23, 1856, in Columbus, Ohio, and called the "Black Edison."

He was a contemporary of Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) and Thomas Edison (1847–1931) who are household words in America. His name has been forgotten but his genius unlocked many secrets of nature and helped to make electricity a better servant of humankind.

Granville T. Woods' inventions have had an enormous impact on our modern life. At the age of ten Granville became an apprentice in a combination blacksmith and machine shop in Columbus, Ohio. When he was 16 years old he went to work on the railroads and traveled west. His interest in energy sources for the railroads must have been furthered by this experience because trains in those days were run by steam engines.

His later inventions would help develop the transportation industry with his automatic electric air brake and electric controls for the elevated railroad in Manhattan. His multiplex telegraph or induction telegraph improved railroad safety and communications and reduced accidents.

After working in a Springfield, Illinois steel mill in 1874 he finally traveled to New York to further his schooling and work experience. While in New York, Granville Woods had the opportunity to set sail and travel around the world including Australia in a British steamliner, the Ironside. He worked in the engine room where he had a chance to observe, study and repair another machine. With this experience under his belt, Woods was prepared to start his own business enterprise. In 1880 he opened a machine shop in Cincinnati, Ohio with his brother Lyates.

After four years of struggle to keep a Black-owned and operated machine shop open, Granville Woods' hard work and faith paid off when he was granted his first United States patent on January 3, 1884 for an improved steam boiler furnace. This was the first of many U.S. patents he received. He patented over 60 inventions. Many of them were purchased by companies such as Westinghouse. Thomas Edison offered Granville Woods a partnership but he turned it down because he preferred to remain independent. In 1901 he sold his "third rail" invention for subway systems to the General Electric Company. This "hidden contributor" was truly an unsung genius.

Many of the African American achievers and contributors not only reflect their own personal integrity and strength, they also reveal the capabilities and strong ties evident in the Black family. Too often the strength of the slave and free African American family has been overlooked because of the nature of slavery and racism. Frequently, the impact of the family is not fully appreciated because of the focus on the nuclear biological family as opposed to the extended communal family. This extended communal family tradition has its roots in the African value system as it adjusted to the cultural context of America. It is the source of African American institution-building and individual achievement.


Lewis Latimer (1848–1928)

One excellent example of the African American achievers in science is Lewis Latimer. His father, George, was as ex-slave who escaped slavery in 1831 and fled to Boston. Eleven years later in 1842, his former owner appeared and tried to take him back into slavery but many members of the Boston community rallied on his behalf and raised the $400 necessary to buy his freedom. Black abolitionists and Whites, such as Lloyd Garrison raised the moral consciousness of the public.

The son, Lewis, settled in Chelsea near Boston but when the Civil War broke out he joined the navy. His brother fought in the Army. After the war, Lewis Latimer became a draftsman and handled the telephone patent for Alexander Graham Bell. His first patent was granted in 1873 when he invented a water closet for railroad cars. In 1880 he worked for the inventor and industrialist Hiram Maxim in the U.S. Electric Lighting Company and the following year he received patents for an improved carbon filament which eventually aided Thomas Edison in his work on the incandescent light bulb. Latimer joined Edison and used his expertise to write one of the first books on lighting cities in America and England. He also helped Edison win several crucial legal battles over patents. Later he became a founding member of the Edison Pioneers.


Jan Matzeliger (1852–1889)

Another Black inventor who had a permanent impact on American industrial development was Jan Matzeliger. He invented the shoe lasting machine that revolutionized the American shoe industry. His lasting machine solved the problem of mechanizing shoe production and a complex corporate structure grew around his invention. His family had its roots in South American and migrated to the United States and settled in Boston and eventually moved to Lynn, Massachusetts. Many others before him had failed to produce an effective machine. Finally in 1883 Matzeliger built a lasting machine that could duplicate all of the complex operations previously carried out by skilled craftsmen.

Lasting is the process of attaching the upper leather portion of the shoe to the inner sole. Not only did Jan Matzeliger's lasting machine work, it transformed the shoe industry in the United States and the World. Eventually through merges of companies, the financial backers of Matzeliger built a giant corporate structure reorganized into the United Shoe Machinery Company that became the largest in the world. The invention of this young Black emigrant from South America helped America develop a monopoly in this industry for 50 years.


Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1859-1931)

An African American named Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was a pioneer in open heart surgery. He was born in Holisburg, Pennsylvania in 1856. Although his father died when young Daniel was only eleven years old, he constantly remembered what he often said: "We colored people must cultivate the mind." He worked hard and became an apprentice in the office of a medical doctor. After two years of practical training, he became aware of the problems of discrimination faced by African American nurses and doctors who could not practice at all-white hospitals. His solution to this problem of discrimination was to organize and establish his own hospital and training school open to all citizens.

As a result of appeals to the African American community, he was able to open the first interracial hospital in the United States. The new institution was opened in January 1891 in Chicago and was called Provident Hospital. It started as a small 12-bed hospital and grew into a medical facility with more than 65 beds.

In 1893, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams again made history when he performed the first successful open-heart surgery at Provident Hospital. It was a daring operation because it was the first time a surgeon had successfully entered the chest cavity and operated on the heart. The patient, James Cornish, recovered and showed no signs of infection. He lived for another fifty years and died in 1943, twelve years after the death of Dr. Williams. His precedent setting heart operation was even more remarkable when one considers that he did not have the advantages of modern medical facilities.

During 1894, Dr. Williams was appointed chief surgeon at Freedmen's hospital in Washington D.C. This famous hospital was established after the Civil War and had 200 beds. Dr. Williams helped reorganize this medical center and contributed to its importance in African American history. He developed a national reputation as an excellent surgeon and medical administrator.

Today open-heart surgery has become routine. In 1893, this type of complicated surgery was too difficult to attempt and bound to fail because of the problem of infection. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams used the latest methods of sterilizing to control infection and with his skill as a medical doctor became a pioneer in the field of medicine and one of America's greatest surgeons.


African American Inventors and Scientists

By World War I, African Americans had left a permanent mark on the scientific, technological and industrial development of the United States. While the masses of African Americans were part of the hardworking labor forces in agriculture and industry, members of the "talented tenth" were hard at work creating inventions that helped transform America into an industrial giant. Not enough is known about these creative and ingenious individuals who achieved their success against enormous obstacles.

The symbol of this African American achievement in science and technology is Dr. George Washington Carver, whose work in agricultural science revolutionized farming in the South and rescued the region from its dependency on one crop—cotton. But Dr. Carver was not alone; there were many others who made major scientific contributions to this nation's technological development. During slavery, Norbert Rillieux invented a vacuum evaporator for turning cane juice into white sugar crystals and revolutionized the processing of sugar cane in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. The history of their lives and what they achieved is an inspiration to all America. They were part of a talented growing group of African Americans who had received as many as one thousand patents for their inventions by World War I. These patents are officially registered with the United States Patent Office in Washington D.C. and represent inventions in almost every field of industry. Some of the inventions of these African American scientists and engineers have had such tremendous impact on American development that they have transformed whole industries.

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