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February 2004

 
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Your Engineering Heritage:

African American Heritage in Engineering

by Michael N. Geselowitz

History Archives

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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 Edison Pioneer

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. patents 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.

 

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Michael N. 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: www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center/

 

 

© Copyright 2004, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.