Black Inventors: Innovators Who Changed the Way We Live

Next time you close an elevator door or put on a pair of sturdy shoes, think about the ingenious black folks who made that possible.

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    Norbert Rillieux (Wikimedia Commons)

    Way before George Washington Carver got busy in a chemistry lab, African Americans were revolutionizing U.S. industry with their amazing inventions. Some of them were born enslaved, others were born free, but they all had one thing in common: big imaginations and the ability to solve problems. The Root takes an inspiring look at the genius of 19th-century black inventors.

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    Henry Blair

    Claim to fame: The corn planter and the cotton planter

    Blair, a farmer, was born free in Maryland around 1807. A successful planter, he had a knack for building devices. In 1834 he became the second black man to be granted a patent for his invention. (The first was entrepreneur Thomas Jennings.) Blair’s wheel-barrow-like corn planter contained a compartment to hold seeds. In 1836 he received a patent for his cotton-planter invention, which also made planting a more efficient process.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Norbert Rillieux

    Claim to fame: Automated sugar refining

    Rillieux, a New Orleans native, was born in 1806 to a white engineer father and a formerly enslaved mother. He trained as an engineer in Paris and returned home, where he revolutionized the sugarcane industry by creating a safer method to process sugar sometime between 1834 and 1843. Frustrated with racism at home, Rillieux returned to France and took up archeology. Still, he couldn’t stop inventing. In his 70s, he patented a process for refining sugar beets.

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    Benjamin Montgomery

    Claim to fame: A propeller that enabled steamboats to navigate through shallow water

    Montgomery was born enslaved in 1819 in Virginia and was sold further south to a Mississippi plantation, where he learned to read and write. His owner, Joseph Davis, let the talented Montgomery operate a general store. A natural mechanic, Montgomery created a steam engine propeller. In 1857 the U.S. Patent Office denied him a patent because of his enslaved status and later refused to grant one to Davis, too.

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Jan Ernst Matzeliger

    Claim to fame: Shoe lasting machine

    Suriname-born Matzeliger was barely out of his teens when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1873. There he found work at a shoe factory in Massachusetts. At the time, shoemaking was a tedious process. In 1883 Matzeliger invented a machine that would automatically attach the sole of the shoe. His invention meant that one factory could produce 700 shoes in a day, making shoes much more affordable. Matzeliger died of tuberculosis in 1889. 

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    Wikimedia Commons

    Lewis Howard Latimer

    Claim to fame: The carbon filament in lightbulbs

    The son of escaped slaves, Latimer was born in Massachusetts in 1848. He served in the Union Navy and later taught himself mechanical drawing while working in a law firm. He helped draft the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention, and while working with Thomas Edison in 1881, he invented a more durable carbon filament, making lightbulbs affordable. In 1890 he co-wrote Incandescent Electrical Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.

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    Alexander Miles

    Claim to fame: Improved method for automatically closing elevator doors

    Born in Ohio in 1838, Miles was a barber by trade. After marrying a white woman, he resettled in Minnesota. Despite his barber training, somehow he got involved with elevators, and in 1887 he invented a method for automatically opening and closing elevator doors. Before his invention, both the elevator door and the elevator shaft had to be opened and closed manually—a very dangerous proposition. Miles’ invention still influences elevator design today.

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    Miriam Benjamin

    Claim to fame: Gong and signal chair for hotels

    Benjamin was born free in South Carolina in the early 1860s and grew up in Boston. In 1888, while working as a teacher in Washington, D.C., she became the second black woman to win a patent. Her invention: a chair with a hidden button that enabled hotel patrons to discreetly signal the help. The chairs were installed in the House of Representatives and served as the precursor for devices that airline passengers use today to signal flight attendants.

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    Public domain

    Hugh Mason Browne

    Claim to fame: A device that prevented sewer backflow in cellars

    Browne was born in Washington, D.C., in 1851 to a well-to-do free black family. He attended Howard and Princeton universities, studied in Germany and Scotland, taught philosophy in Liberia and worked with W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. His 1890 invention trapped sewer water, preventing it from flooding into homes and spreading disease. In the early 1900s he became principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia.

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    Sarah Boone

    Claim to fame: The ironing board

    Boone was born in the Deep South and ended up in New Haven, Conn. She invented an improvement on the ironing board—and she was granted a patent in 1892. At the time, people used a board between two chairs; Boone’s device was collapsible and reversible. In creating her invention, Boone said in her patent application that her objective was “to produce a cheap, simple, convenient, and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies’ garments.”

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    Courtesy of African-American Registry 

    Andrew Jackson Beard

    Claim to fame: The jenny coupler

    Beard was born enslaved in Alabama in 1849 but obtained his freedom in his teens. He went on to become a successful farmer, founded a flour mill and invented a steam-operated rotary motor and a double plow. In 1897 he received a patent for his most famous invention: the jenny coupler, which automated the linking of railroad cars. Before, cars were linked manually; men often lost limbs or were crushed in the process. Beard’s invention revolutionized the industry.

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    Lyda Newman

    Claim to fame: A better hairbrush

    A hairdresser by trade, Newman was most likely born in Ohio in the 1870s or 1880s, but she lived in New York for most of her life and was active in the women’s-suffrage movement. In 1898 she was awarded a patent for her newfangled hairbrush, the first to have synthetic bristles, and it could be cleaned with the push of a button. Her invention paved the way for other black women in the beauty business—like Madam C.J. Walker.

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    John Albert Burr

    Claim to fame: The rotary-blade lawn mower

    Born to free parents in 1848, Burr worked in the fields as a teenager. With the aid of wealthy black activists, he was able to study engineering. In 1899, while working as a machinist in Chicago, Burr invented the rotary-blade lawn mower, which drastically streamlined the grass-cutting process. He went on to hold more than 30 patents, most designed to help with farmwork.

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Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.