Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A People of Invention: During Black History Month, let’s publicize the intellectual accomplishments of African Americans

Screenshot 2014-01-31 09.35.21

Each year, Black History Month rolls around, and I think to myself, “Okay, get ready to hear story after story about and quotes from an outstanding American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Now, hold on, in no way am I attempting to diminish his greatness and impact on our country. I am, however, attempting to enlighten some by sharing certain lessons and stories that are told in my family year round.

As black people, we are often praised and lauded for our physical and artistic talents, yet we have contributed so much more. We are scientists, inventors, doctors, engineers…in other words, we possess incredible intellectual capital that, unfortunately, is not as widely publicized and praised as our other achievements. Again…no hate, simply an expansion of thought and consideration.

When I lived in Maryland, I would visit my children’s school during Black History Month and tell them a story entitled, “What if There Were No More Black People.” The particular version I used is a story of a little boy named Theo, who wakes up one morning and asks his mother, “Mom, what if there were no black people in the world?” His mother thinks about that for a moment and then says, “Son, follow me around today, and let’s just see what it would be like if there were no black people in the world.” 

The story goes on to list all types of items invented by black Americans. I would bring in props and ask the children, “How many of you brushed your hair this morning? Raise your hands.” I would raise my hand and most, if not all, of the kids would raise their hands, as well. And so it went on that way.

Now, the story is great in its attempt to highlight the many contributions black Americans have made, yet it also embellishes in some places. I think it’s safe to say that, if a black person had not invented said item, someone eventually would have, as necessity is the mother of all invention and has no color—except for the sista’ who invented hair care products specifically for black women’s hair texture.

So, the world, in my opinion, would have naturally evolved technically and industrially.

With that being said, listed below are a few of the many inventions by black folks:

Garrett A. Morgan invented the automated traffic signal in 1923. Morgan sold the rights to his patent to General Electric for $40,000.

Frederick McKinley Jones invented the portable air conditioning unit used at military field hospitals in World War II. With the use of this invention, the military was able to store perishable, life-saving medicines and blood serum near the theater of battle, helping to save more lives. In 1935, this same man invented the first refrigerated truck.

Madam C.J. Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Her business was worth more than $1 million at the time of her death in 1919. She developed hair care products and styling instruments specifically for the needs of black women.

Dr. Charles Drew discovered the technique of storing blood plasma. As a result of this discovery, the first blood bank was formed and many lives have been saved through transfusions of blood and blood products. 

Granville T. Woods invented the multiplex telegraph in 1887, a device that allowed train dispatchers and engineers at various stations to communicate with moving trains. Prior to that, collisions were a huge problem. In 1889, he invented an automatic safety cutout for electric circuits.

In 1892, George T. Sampson received the first U.S. patent for a clothes dryer.

Richard Spikes, in 1913, invented automatic directional lights, which would eventually come to be known as automatic directional lights or turn signals.

Percy Julian developed a material known as “bean soup,” a soy protein blend that extinguished gas and oil fires that could not be put out by water.  This mixture saved the lives of countless sailors during times of war. In addition, athletes all over the world can thank him for the production of cortisone, which has eased the sufferings of millions.

Elijah McCoy invented the automatic oil cup, which lubricated a train’s axles and bearings while it was in motion, leading to fewer stops and improved safety. It was a huge success that imitators soon tried to cash in.  Engineers, though, continued to prefer McCoy’s product. So, when purchasing the part, they’d ask for “the real McCoy,” coining that expression.

In 1883, Jan Ernst Matzeliger developed a machine that would sew the sole to the upper of a shoe in about a minute. His “shoe lasting” machine changed the process of how shoes were made by automating this part of the process that previously was done by hand, thereby cutting the cost of making shoes in half.

In 1882, Lewis Howard Latimer invented a method of making carbon filaments for what became known as the electric incandescent lamp.    

George Crum developed the potato chip in 1853.

Dr. Patricia Bath, an ophthalmologic surgeon, invented the Laserphaco Probe, a surgical tool that uses a laser to vaporize cataracts.

“By the time we leave for work, Americans have depended on the inventions from the minds of blacks,” said Martin Luther King Jr. in a speech delivered in June 1966 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

As I think of the purposes of Black History Month, a couple of thoughts come to mind: to share information on the many positive contributions that Black Americans have made throughout history and to increase the confidence, pride and self-love we as black folks should embody. I hope, in some small way, I have accomplished this.

I would someday like to see black history discussed in terms of American history. However, in the present, as with other ethnic groups and cultures, we have to tell our stories in order for the facts and occurrences to accurately hold their places in the history of our great nation.

Wendy Jackson-Dowe of Harrisburg is a consultant, serves as the government relations director with the African American Chamber of Commerce of Central PA and is a former engineer with ExxonMobil .

Continue Reading