African Americans Inventors and Scientist in the 19th Century

As James Brodie notes, “Understanding the contributions made by African inventors and scientist in the Western Hemisphere is impossible without recognizing the conditions under which they created.” The conditions in which they worked and created rarely paralleled the expansion of American democracy and citizenship for African Americans.

Paradoxically, some of the major contributions of African Americans inventors and scientist have come during periods of intense racial hatred and oppression. The black inventor and scientist, Brodie observes, “made his or her discoveries in the face of an often hateful and indifferent society.” For example, Norbert Rillieux’s invention of a machine for refining sugar took place in Louisiana, one of the fifteen states that permitted slavery between 1820 and 1860. Others, including celebrated inventors Jan Matzeliger and Granville T Woods, worked, created and invented during “Reconstruction,” the far-reaching period in which efforts were made by the national government to fulfill promise of citizenship for blacks- and the period after “Reconstruction”, a time of violent suppression of African Americans.

The period in American History known as the “Progressive Era” was ironically for blacks one of the low points in their history. During this so called Progressive Era, lynching of African Americans were reported every week in the North and South; it was the nadir in African American History, as black historian Rayford Logan points out. And yet, to paraphrase poet Maya Angelou, despite all of this, still, like dust we rise.

Norbert Rillieux developed and invented a machine between 1834 and 1843 for refining sugar. The multiple-effect evaporation system that he devised addressed both the spillage that resulted from transfer and the uneven application of heat, as well as making the process safer for workers. The system utilizes a vacuum chamber or a container with reduced air to lower the boiling point of the liquids. Inside this several pans are stacked to contain the sugarcane juice.

In the early part of the 1800s, the process for sugar refinement was slow, expensive, and inefficient. First, the sugarcane juice was pressed and extracted from the cane before workers used the “Jamaica Train” method of forming sugar from the juice. The workers, who were mostly enslaved Africans, poured the sugarcane juice into the largest kettle, where it was left until most of the water evaporated. Then they continued to pour the resultant thick liquid into smaller and smaller pots as the liquid continued to thicken. Each time the liquid was poured, some of the sugar was lost. A considerable amount of sugar was also burned because it was difficult to monitor and maintain appropriate heat levels for the pots. The process was also dangerous for the workers, who had routinely to transfer the hot liquid.

Rillieux also turned his engineering skills to dealing with a Yellow Fever outbreak in New Orleans in the 1850s. Rillieux presented a plan to the city that would eliminate the moist breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carried the disease by addressing problems in the city’s sewer system and drying swamplands in the area. Although the plan was blocked several years later, the ongoing Yellow Fever outbreak in New Orleans was addressed by white engineers using a method extremely similar to what Rillieux had proposed. In the late 1850s, Norbert Rillieux went to France. In Paris, Rillieux became interested in and studied Egyptology and hieroglyphics, spending a decade working and studying at the National Library of France.

Elijah McCoy was issued more than 57 patents for his inventions during his lifetime. The quality of his inventions and product were of such high standards that they were called the “Real McCoy.” His best known invention was a cup that fed lubricating oil to machine bearings through a small bore tube. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators might have used the expression “the real McCoy.” Besides this, Elijah McCoy developed a lubricator for steam engines that did not require trains to stop. His lubricator used steam pressure to pump oil wherever it was needed.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first open heart surgery on July 9, 1893 before such surgeries were even established. In performing the first surgery, he utilized many of the emerging antiseptic, sterilization procedures of the day and thereby gained a reputation for professionalism.

Miriam Benjamin, school teacher, was the second black woman to receive a patent. Benjamin received a patent for an invention she called a Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels. Her invention allowed hotel customer to summon a waiter from the comfort of their chair. A button on the chair would buzz the waiters’ station and a light on the chair would let the wait staff know who wanted service.

Sarah E. Goode was the first African American woman to be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Tradesmark Office for her invention, the cabinet bed, July 14, 1885. As an entrepreneur of a furniture store, Goode noted that city apartment dwellers often had little space for beds. She conceived the design of what we know today as the “hide away” bed. She described the design as “a folding bed” whose hinged sections were easily raised or lowered. When not in use as a bed, Goode’s invention could also be used as a desk.

Lewis Latimer drafted the patent drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for the telephone, spending long nights with the inventor. Bell won the patent rights to the telephone with the help of Latimer. Latimer’s talent for drafting and his creative genius led him to invent a method of making carbon filaments for an electric incandescent lamp. In 1881, he supervised the installation of the electric lights in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. Further, Lewis Latimer was the original draftsman for Thomas Edison.

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3 Responses to “African Americans Inventors and Scientist in the 19th Century”

  1. American women inventors Says:

    2 thumbs up for your blog! I loved the way you have discussed issues relating to Amercian women inventors.

  2. pamela Says:

    Stainless Steel Tea Pots HI ! Love your blog thanks for sharing…

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