American Heritage in Engineering
by Michael N.
|Database Results Wizard Error|
The operation failed. If this continues, please contact your server administrator.
February is Black History
Month, an appropriate time to highlight the significance of
African American engineering heritage. Though African Americans
have faced a number of hurdles
— and continue to do
so even today
— many have
contributed a great deal to science and technology over the years.
Even more incredibly, some of these individuals managed to make
their mark in the 19th century, while the scourge of slavery still
hovered over the land. Most of these pioneering African American
inventors of the 19th century developed ideas in the agricultural
and domestic spheres, social areas to which they were confined as
a people. However, a handful managed to crash through the barriers
and make significant contributions to the nation’s industrial
progress in other industries.
Lewis Latimer: An
On the electrical side,
two of the most frequently mentioned African American engineers
are Lewis Howard Latimer and Granville T. Woods. Latimer was born
the son of escaped slaves in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 4
September 1848. A self-taught draftsman, he supported himself
doing patent drawings while laboring as an independent inventor —
he invented a water closet for railroad cars (1873) and an
improvement for the incandescent light bulb. In his patent role,
he was responsible for preparing the mechanical drawings for
Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for his telephone.
Thomas Edison took note of his work for Bell and on the light bulb
and hired him in 1884. Latimer, in fact, holds the distinction of
being the only African American member of the Edison Pioneers, the
original engineering division of the Edison Company.
He continued to work on
electric lighting, and in 1890 published Incandescent Electric
Lighting, a technical engineering book that became the standard
guide for lighting engineers. His greatest value to Edison,
however, was as an expert witness in the court battles over
Edison’s patents. When Latimer died on 11 December 1928, in New
York, the Edison Pioneers attributed his “important inventions”
he held eight U.S. patents
to a “keen perception of the
potential of the electric light and kindred industries.”
Granville T. Woods:
Improving Railway Communications
Granville T. Woods was
born in Columbus, Ohio on 23 April 1856 and was, like Latimer, the
son of former slaves. He, too, had little formal schooling when he
began his career as an inventor, but apprenticed in a machine shop
and learned the machinist and blacksmith trades. He then worked in
a variety of transportation and industrial jobs while continuing
to teach himself about electricity and mechanics, occasionally
managing to get tutoring or take night courses in engineering (he
eventually earned a degree).
Woods eventually settled
in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he turned his attention to inventing.
He received his first patent in 1884 for an improved steam boiler
furnace. He licensed many subsequent mechanical inventions to the
major corporations of the day.
All the while, however,
electricity remained his greatest interest. In 1887, he invented
what many consider to be his greatest contribution: the
Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which allowed
communications between train stations and moving trains. Train
accidents and collisions were causing great concern to both the
public and the railways at the time. Woods’ invention, which
became universally used, made it possible for trains to
communicate with the station and with other trains; every
dispatcher and every engineer knew exactly where every train was
at all times. This invention made train movements quicker and
prevented countless accidents and collisions.
Woods continued to invent
he earned a total of 45 U.S.
until his death in New York
on 30 January 1910.
The Real McCoy
Perhaps one of the most
interesting African American inventors of the 19th century is
Elijah McCoy, a mechanical engineer who literally became a
household name. Born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada on 2 May
1844, McCoy was also the son of former slaves (his parents had
fled Kentucky for Canada on the Underground Railroad). Unlike
Latimer and Woods, however, McCoy received a formal education,
having trained in Scotland as a mechanical engineer.
Eventually settling in
Detroit, Michigan, McCoy established his own firm, which received
57 U.S. patents
— 28 of which he held
himself. His first invention, a lubricator for steam engines built
in 1872, became perhaps his best known. This invention enabled
machines to remain in motion while they were being oiled, making
them more reliable and less prone to catastrophic failure.
McCoy’s lubricator became
so popular that people inspecting new machines often asked if the
equipment contained “the real McCoy,” a reference that since has
become a common American expression.
Elijah McCoy died on 10
October 1929 near Detroit, Michigan.
Geselowitz, Ph.D., is director of the IEEE History Center at
Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Visit the IEEE History
Center's Web page at: