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February 6th, 2013

Our forefathers made sure it got done against all odds

Lillie Howard

Why has what our forefathers did for society been so easily forgotten and hardly ever mentioned? I hear about what so many of the immigrants have done but very little is mentioned about what my forefathers did, and they did it against all odds. Truthfully, America was built on the backs of my forefathers. Being that there is so little mention of their many contributions, I thought I would start my African American History month series off with that.

Between 1860 and 1890, a period which saw the U.S. transform from an agricultural nation to an industrial nation, hundreds of thousands of patents were registered. Some of these important inventions were made by African Americans. By 1913, Blacks had patented an estimated one thousand inventions, especially in the fields of electricity, transportation and industrial machinery, and the records show that more than twenty of the approximately 1990 Black inventors were Black women.

Before the Civil War, Black inventions were hardly recognized or known due to the fact that enslaved Africans could not patent their inventions. In fact, in 1858, the U.S. Attorney General ruled that since a slave was not a citizen and a patent was a contract between the government and a citizen inventor, a slave could not make a contract with the government or assign the invention to his slaveholder. Nevertheless, reports are numerous of enslaved Africans inventing useful devices. At first the inventions centered on household and agricultural devices, but eventually the field of Black inventions widened to include achievements in nearly all branches of industrial inventions.

The first African American to receive a U.S. patent was Henry Blair, who in 1834 registered a seed planter and in 1836 registered a corn harvester. In 1846, one of the most important inventions by an African American was patented when Norbert Rillieux patented the revolutionary multiple-effect vacuum evaporation process for refining sugar. Today, his basic technique is not only used in manufacturing sugar, but also condensed milk, gelatin, glue, soap, etc.

After the Civil War, the most significant inventors near the turn of the century were Lewis Latimer, Jan Matzeliger, Elijah McCoy, Garret Morgan and Granville T. Woods. Lewis Latimer invented the first electric lamp with a carbon filament, an inexpensive production technique for making carbon filaments for lamps, and the cotton thread filament, which made electric light bulbs practical and inexpensive. Thus, although Edison is credited with inventing the bulb, it is important to note that his bulb continuously burnt out quickly, and it was Latimer’s invention which made it last and become a usable item. Latimer also drew designs for Alexander Bell’s telephone patent, worked for Thomas Edison, General Electric and Westinghouse and in 1890 wrote the first book of the electrical lighting system.

Jan Matzeliger revolutionized the shoe industry with his invention of the shoe lasting machine in 1891. Within the first twenty years of Matzeliger’s invention, the shoe industry doubled its production in dollars from $220,000,000 to $442,631,000, and shoes became 50% cheaper and of better quality.

Elijah McCoy’s most important invention was the automatic lubricator for use on locomotive engines in 1872. This drip cup eliminated the need to stop and restart engines in order to lubricate them. His product was so respected, the phrase "the Real McCoy" was used to question or confirm the genuineness of his and other products.

Garret Morgan invented a belt fastener for sewing machines in 1921, the smoke inhalator in 1914 and the automatic traffic light in 1923. His smoke inhalator was a life-saver used by fire departments and was transformed into a gas mask in World War I to protect soldiers. His automatic traffic light was sold to General Electric for $40,000. Wow! He settled for much less than he should have.

That is all for now, but this series will continue throughout this month. This information was obtained from Maulana Karenga’s "Introduction to Black Studies", which was one of my granddaughter Tamika’s books while she attended New Paltz University, which she graduated from.

Think about how different society would have been had not our forefathers been snatched and stolen from our Motherland, Africa, and brought to America. This is Lillie’s Point of View!

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