Black inventors

A traveling museum in St. Louis highlights the achievements of black inventors. From left, across: Granville T. Woods, Lonnie Johnson, Sarah Boone, George Washington Carver, Bessie Blount, Elijah McCoy, Madam CJ Walker, Marjorie Joyner, Philip Emeagwali.

In 1996, Loretta Ford founded the Museum of Black Inventors with the idea of highlighting the achievements of often unsung African Americans who contributed greatly to the fields of science, household goods, engineering and technology.

Housed for a while in the Central West End, the organization eventually outgrew its location and in 1998 the museum reemerged as a traveling museum and now visits schools, workplaces, and community organizations across the Midwest.

“I attended a book fair at Saint Louis University in 1995, and I picked up a book ‘Black Inventors of America’ by Burt McKinley Jr., and I saw all these amazing inventors that I had never learned about in elementary school,” said Ford. “From there I was determined to share it with as many people as I could.”

The museum includes photographs, drawings, documentation and hands-on replicas of inventions. Ford hopes the museum will fill in an area of knowledge that mainstream education often leaves out.

“I attended predominantly African-American schools, and as part of my history lessons I really only learned about George Washington Carver,” Ford said. “I was amazed I’d gone through school and did not have this history. It’s just not taught.”

The museum highlights the work of inventors who even under the unimaginable duress of slavery produced life-changing products.

“At some point during slavery, in 1861, slaves were able to have their inventions recognized and patented,” said Ford. “Unfortunately, they could not make decisions about profits. The slave masters would get the profits.”

In one instance, an enslaved person named Ned created in apparatus that enabled the cotton gin to operate more efficiently. He went to court against his master for rights to his profits and lost.

In many cases such as Ned’s, African-American inventors created integral parts of inventions that we know by name today. Lewis Latimer, for example, worked closely with Thomas Edison and, although he did not invent the light bulb, he was the first to create an inexpensive carbon filament that allowed a light bulb to work. Without him, there would be no light bulb.

Other inventors highlighted in the exhibition include:

  • Sarah Boone, who invented the apparatus you could attach to an ironing board that would allow you to iron men’s shirts sleeves.
  • Madam C.J. Walker, who lived in St. Louis, invented women’s creams, hair products, and more. She invented a method for smoothing and softening African-American hair, which made her both the first African-American millionaire and the first female self-made millionaire of any race in the U.S.
  • Lonnie Johnson, from Illinois, invented the Super Soaker water gun. “You can go to any store now in the toys department and find the super soaker water gun,” Ford said. “But he was also an engineer, a brilliant man, who was creative in his inventions.”
  • Philip Emeagwali developed the fastest supercomputer software in the world and, in 1989, won the Gordon Bell Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
  • Frederick Jones invented the first automatic refrigeration system in long-haul trucks.
  • Otis Boykin invented an “electrical resistor” which is now used in computers, radios and other electronic devices as well as the pacemaker.
  • Danny Flowers is a schoolteacher in St. Louis. In the last 10 years, he invented the first kids’ weight bench as well as an apparatus to hold a cell phone when climbing a ladder.

“All over, in every city, you’ll find creativity,” Ford said. “But St. Louis has contributed a lot. Madame C.J. Walker put us on the map being the first African American millionaire.” 

If you’re interested in seeing the Museum of Black Inventors, Ford recommends checking on the museum’s website at blackinventors.org to follow where the museum is going to be. If an event is denoted as “public,” that means people can visit for free. Likewise, Ford said she can book the museum to come to any workplace or private event.

Reprinted with permission from news.stlpublicradio.org.

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