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Black Inventors

Frederick McKinley Jones

Awhile back we printed an article about women inventors, and how much blander and less convenient our lives would be without contributions like Mary Anderson’s windshield wipers, or Teri Pall’s cordless phone.

So, in that spirit, and maybe to get a head start on Black History Month, consider how much would be missing from our lives without the contributions of African-American inventors.

To begin, let’s hope you had a good breakfast. You know, of course, that the milk, eggs, butter, fruit and other perishables that grace your table got to the store safely because of Frederick McKinley Jones’s automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks (Patent #2,475,841--1949). Jones later adapted the unit for railcars (no more loading up with blocks of ice that rusted out the cars) and ships, and improved the basic idea through a series of nearly two dozen additional patents.

On the subject of food, we should thank Lloyd A. Hall for his vacuum sterilization processes for food (medical supplies, too) (#2,107,697--1938).

And Ulysses S. Walton’s improved dentures (#2,314,674--1943) make it easier to enjoy the food.

A cold drink? Amos E. Long’s single-use bottle cap (#610,715--1898) makes sure the beverage inside stays fresh and safe to drink.

A peanut butter sandwich? While there is evidence that the Aztecs had peanut butter, Marcellus Gilmore Edson got the first US patent for it (#306,727--1884). Footnote: while George Washington Carver discovered over three hundred uses for peanuts, and hundreds more for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes; he only applied for three patents, and none was for peanut butter.

Is today a work day? It’s comforting to know that Alexander Miles’s elevator (#371,207—1887) keeps us safe in our buildings. Before this, elevator users had to shut the door manually. Some users forgot, and there were frequently accidents with people falling down the open elevator shafts.

Similar to this were James Cooper’s designs (#536,605—1895 and #590,257—1897) that kept elevators from being started if the door was open.

Work in manufacturing? Allen H. Turner’s electrostatic paint systems (#3,017,115—1962 and #3,054,697—1962) not only keep the air cleaner by reducing overspray, but save money on materials cost.

If you work in construction, Stephen H. Davis’s load weighing and totaling device for cranes and hoists (#2,324,769—1943) might be part of your tool kit.

Or Cap B. Collins’s portable electric light (#2,105,719—1938).

Dentists and dental technicians have long benefitted from William B. Jones’s apparatus (#2,096,375—1937) for making dentures faster and more accurately.

Doctors, nurses, and others in the medical field help their patients with some of the three dozen blood system repair techniques and devices contributed by Donald K. Jones. These include his stent aneurysm treatment system and method (#6,063,111--2000) or his detachable balloon embolization device and method (#6,379,329—2002).

If we’re flying, it’s comforting to know that Richard Toomey’s aircraft wing de-icing device (#1,749,858--1930) will make our flight safer.

Feel like traveling? If we stay home, don’t worry about the cold weather. Thanks to Alice H. Parker, your house is most likely heated with natural gas. Her design (#1,325,905--1919) marked the first successful system of heating with natural gas, and paved the way for thermostats and central heating.

But if we are packing our bags and getting ready to travel, let’s use the bags with wheels. These are so common now, but we need to thank former airline stewardess Debrilla Ratchford for the idea. She built and patented the system (#4,094,391--1978) because she got tired of lugging her suitcase around.

And, don’t worry if somebody calls while we’re gone. Benjamin Thornton’s phone answering machine (#1,831,331–1931) will make sure we get our messages.

Worried that you left some lights on? Francis E. LeVert’s digital room light controller (#4,277,727—1981) will turn the lights off when the rooms are not occupied; and turn them on when they are.

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If we’re flying, it’s comforting to know that Richard Toomey’s aircraft wing de-icing device (#1,749,858--1930) will make our flight safer.

Traveling by train? We all appreciate Lewis Howard Latimer’s water closets for railway passenger cars (#147,363--1874). Passengers much preferred this concept to the simple hole in the floor that caused their backsides to be pelted with gravel, cinders, water, or whatever the train was traveling through at the time.

Don’t worry about leaving the car at the station. John Arthur “Jack” Johnson’s automobile anti-theft device (#1,438,709--1922) will keep it safe. And, his adjustable wrench (#1,413,121--1922) will help if anything needs fixing.

We might also need to use Charles Banks’s hydraulic jack (#1,758,640--1930) to help with any repairs.

As a side note: Jack Johnson was, in addition to a talented mechanic, the first African-American Heavyweight boxing champion, a title he held from 1908 to 1915.

The Real McCoy? Elijah McCoy’s superior locomotive lubricating systems gave him his first patent (#130,305--1872) and made railroading safer and more cost effective. His two dozen follow on patents guaranteed his reputation when railroaders would not accept other brands and insisted on “The Real McCoy.”

If we decide to go to a concert, it’ll be more comfortable thanks to David N. Crosthwait, Jr. He developed a heater and air conditioning system for large buildings, first used at Radio City Music Hall (#2,205,716 – 1940).

Having trouble getting around? Rufus J. Weaver’s stairclimbing wheelchair (#3,411,598--1968) will help.

And if we get hurt, we can count on Dr. Charles Drew’s blood bank and transfusion systems (#2,301,710--1942). It is this same Dr. Drew, of course, for whom the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles is named.

But, let’s focus on fun. How about some bicycle riding? Thanks to Wesley Johnson and his velocipede (#627,335--1899) it’s something we all can do. Johnson’s idea of a low frame, chain drive vehicle with both wheels the same size freed us from the high-wheel, direct-drive “boneshaker” designs.

Play some golf? Of course, we’ll use George F. Grant’s tapered golf tees (#638,920--1899).

Or, ride Deanna R. Meredith’s adjustable length skateboard (#4,458,907--1984).

On a warm day, Lonnie G. Johnson’s Super Soaker® (#5,074,437--1991), or any one of his other squirt guns, sounds like a good idea.

While some African-American inventions are technologically dazzling, others are elegant in their simplicity and usefulness. A standout in this category would be Marc B. Auguste, Sr.’s coin and token handling apparatus (#7,083,512—2006). This is an assistive device for visually impaired persons. It fits comfortably in the person’s palm, and holds different sized coins or tokens which can be extracted by a simple push of the thumb.

So, esoteric or down-to-earth practical, African-American inventions and ideas have made our travel safer, our businesses more profitable, and our health greater.

We thank you.

“Dreams about the future are always filled with gadgets.” --Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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John MacMurray