African American inventors are relatively rare, given the historical issues facing the oppression of their community in the United States. However, there have been many famous and influential inventors that have contributed greatly to humanity’s development. This is a sample paper that explores the inventions of Garrett Augustus Morgan and Philip B. Downing.
African-American inventors and their contributions
The creation of new technology throughout history has shaped and altered the course of all of mankind. From the most primitive, such as the wheel or club, to the modern marvels like high performance textiles and social media sharing sites, each, no matter how small or monumental, has had a profound effect on ensuing inventions. These inventions have been ideas set to motion by daring individuals, men and women who often attempt to fulfill their dreams in the face of adversity.
Two such individuals, Garrett Augustus Morgan and Philip B. Downing, both African-Americans living in post-antebellum era America, saw their inventions come to fruition against a multitude of odds, and subsequently helped structure the course of technological history.
Garrett Augustus Morgan
Garrett Augustus Morgan, born in 1877 in Paris, Kentucky, possessed the creative genius behind the existence of two technologies the United States depends on heavily: the traffic signal and the gas mask. He did not start out, though, as a well-known character. As the son of a former slave being raised in an area known for its brutal treatment of African-Americans, Morgan’s childhood was marred with difficulties.
While slavery was no longer in practice during these years, Morgan lived in a society in which illiteracy and poverty were still prevalent among the poorer population. Those without opportunity often turned to sharecropping, a system in which poor individuals or families work for wealthier landowners for little to no pay, perpetuating a cycle that remained eerily reminiscent of slavery (Oluonye 2-4). It wasn’t until 1907 that his days as an inventor came underway.
After accruing enough money to open a sewing machine repair shop, he stumbled unintentionally upon his first invention, a hair-straightening cream, while experimenting with liquids used to polish his needles. Five years later came his first well-known creation: following a lethal explosion in an underground tunnel, he and his brother used his newest technology, the gas mask (then known as the safety hood), to avoid contact with any toxic emissions that were present during the ordeal.
This protection against suffocation allowed them to emerge from the site with survivors. His next, and possibly most famous, invention came in the form of an electric-clock operated traffic light, which he eventually patented and sold to General Electric Corporation (Williams 15). The model had three different patterns, each signifying a movement corresponding to the modern-day traffic light. While this model has seen countless improvements since its inception, the basic idea of moderating the flow of traffic is an ingenious concept that affects the movement of all vehicular traffic.
Philip B. Downing
On the east coast of the country, not far from Morgan, a different inventor was soon to emerge as well. Philip B. Downing, an African-American from Boston, Massachusetts, is credited with the patenting of an equally impressive device that once again relates to transportation: the mailbox. To be clear, he did not invent the boxes that are a common sight on the exterior of American homes; instead, he created a more secure and stable receptacle that is used by the public as a place to drop any variety of post.
He patented this in 1891 since, after seeing how susceptible to rain damage, theft, and how inconveniently slow the original boxes were, he saw an opportunity to improve on outdated technology, allowing for safe and quick mail pickup. While his creation has, as well as Morgan’s, been modified to fit modern times, the concept behind it is something that the postal system, as well as the American public, relies on every day.
When discussing African-American inventors, most notably during the Civil War era and the following years, it is impossible to overlook the challenges present as well as the ubiquitous, lingering memory of the slave system that instilled in the white hegemony a sense of superiority in both intellect and physical capability. It was not uncommon for African-American inventors to patent ideas that made their labors easier as a whole, only to never see true credit given to their name.
Henry Blair, the first African-American in 1837 to ever receive a patent, as well as the patent holder for the first corn planter, rarely appears in literature regarding inventions or inventors and is a prime example of the lack of recognition African-American inventors of this time period received. Lewis Latimer, an African-American who worked with Thomas Edison as he created the first working light bulb, made improvements on the incandescent light bulb for which he received a patent in 1881; his feats are rarely discussed though, as he is largely overshadowed by the perceived accomplishments of his white contemporaries (Williams 5).
That these two inventors, Garrett Augustus Morgan and Philip B. Downing, both created lasting inventions for which they receive credit, and have appeared as important characters in history, displays their tenacity and determination in the face of oppression.
African American inventors Downing and Morgan
The magnanimity of the inventions pioneered by these two African-American men cannot fully be felt without looking at the location in which they found themselves. Downing, a member of the Boston community, was able to receive his patent in one of the post-Civil War era’s most intellectually stimulating areas in America. Filled with a plethora of literary geniuses and artists who supported an intellectual movement on the coast, Boston was less an area of bigotry and hatred towards African-Americans than it was about cultural development and forward thinking.
While it is impossible to say that Downing’s journey towards creating the structure of the mailbox was one free of challenges, the fact that he lived and worked in a northern state most certainly would have had its advantages, and would have allowed him more freedom to remove himself from an embittered white population. Morgan’s tale was most certainly a different one, though. His father, a former slave, was given a last name to match his master, John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate soldier during the American Civil War. The younger Morgan, Garrett, grew up as a free child as Union soldiers killed his father’s master, but he still remained the seventh of eleven children in then one of the most racist locations in the United States (Oluonye 1).
After struggling with the system of sharecropping, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was able to find work as a handyman, and subsequently to Cleveland, Ohio, wherein he secured employment at a sewing machine repair shop, the business that would spark his creative interests and allow him the freedom of invention. Cleveland at this time was also undergoing certain changes, but instead of finding itself swarmed with literary talent, it began to undergo a manufacturing revolution that spurred inventions of all kinds in this northern city.
While it is impossible to say what would have happened had either of these two inventors challenged creation in the face of unopposed racism and oppression, it is no doubt that the more liberal nature of their location in northern states contributed to their ability to create and patent their brilliant ideas, and be celebrated like fellow inventor George Washington Carver.
How their inventions effect modern life
Seeing how these inventions have affected modern life is not difficult, but truly understanding the colossal nature of their impacts requires an understanding of life surrounding such tools before and after their invention. The mailbox is a very simple creation. For years before Downing, there existed a receptacle in which the public could drop their mail, and assume that it would be delivered in the subsequent days, weeks, or months.
It was very basic, and had little to no security systems of which to boast. Downing saw the unprotected nature of the mailbox, and felt the need to improve it. During these times, countless parcels of mail were being destroyed by inclement weather; rain, snow and wind could easily destroy the mail in an uncovered box on the street. In his issued patent, Downing states also that the intention of his patent is “so that the mail can be collected…more rapidly” (Downing 1). Yet these were not the only inconveniences: mail theft was just as common, and valuables nor valuable information was safe to be sent via post. Instead, to guarantee the delivery of the information or items, one was required to deliver it by hand, an entirely inconvenient system.
Downing’s simple improvement of a protected and covered system now allows the American public to rely on a delivery program that once left people unsure of the safety of their mail.
Morgan and the mining Boom
Morgan’s creations are equally as impacting. During the Civil War and the years after, mining was a booming industry that provided many Americans with steady employment, but also left them with a position in which safety was never guaranteed. Mines are notoriously rife with toxic fumes, and explosions can only exacerbating this by forcing survivors or rescuers to battle through smoke to find safety for them or their coworkers.
Morgan understood this and created an item, the smoke hood, that allowed either party to, for lack of a better term, breathe easy when traversing through atmospheres containing dangerous particles. His invention was responsible for saving countless lives during the mining boom. But only looking at his contemporary survivors would be overlooking how important his contribution is to today’s society. While no longer as simple as his original creation, the modern-day gas mask is used by law enforcement officers and rescue personnel in numerous operations spanning a variety of situations.
Firefighters wear gas masks during routine work in which they are required to enter rooms filled with smoke in order to rescue survivors, a sight Morgan might see as reminiscent of days spent in a mine. Law enforcement officers rely on gas masks when dispersing crowds or when engaging criminals, ensuring their safety against dangerous odds. It is an invention used far and wide.
Traffic lights are an African American invention
His second creation though, carries effects that can be seen simply by looking out a window and witnessing the motion of vehicular traffic. His three-armed traffic light, one of the most primitive examples of a traffic-control system, is the basis for all traffic lights seen around the world. Considering that traffic-related injuries and deaths are all too common in this age of constant motorized travel, imagining a world in which the movement of vehicular traffic is only guided by non-motorized signs conjures up images of halted movement and unnecessary collisions. His invention was a great one, and one that the inhabitants of any urban center would be hard pressed to live without.
Rise of Brilliance
While new inventions arise with the need for any increased efficiency or convenience, it is difficult to find creations that make monumental impacts that can be monitored through history. With this, upon discovery of such ideas or concepts, it is remarkable to discover the ideas conjured up by African American members of post-Civil War America. But the American public, if not the entirety of the developed world, is forever dependent on the creations of Garrett Augustus Morgan and Philip B. Downing, two African American inventors who stood against the odds and changed the course of technology forever.
Downing, Philip B. “Street Letter Box”. Patent No. 462,092. Filed Feb. 27, 1891. Issued Oct. 27, 1891.
Oluonye, Mary N.. Garrett Augustus Morgan: Businessman, Inventor, Good Citizen. Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2008. Print.
Williams, James Henry. African American Inventors and Pioneers. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corp., 2011. Print.