Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century

I have a term paper coming up for my Contested Images:  Race, Religion, and Science in American class and I thought I’d post the synopsis here. I used to write a lot about historical topics on my site and its been awhile since I last wrote about history. Maybe when I’m done with the paper I’ll update this post and append the actual report (or maybe not, it’ll be about 15 pages long). Anyway, here’s the thumbnail sketch of it –

The end of the 19th Century was a turbulent time for African-Americans. The Civil War, having just recently concluded, was still an open wound in parts of the United States, and the lingering feelings and racism bled into the Reconstruction period and beyond. During this time, a handful of men rose above the difficulties to create life-changing inventions that would modify the future of entire industries. This paper will focus on the backgrounds, work and inventions of three influential inventors: Lewis Latimer, Elijah McCoy and Granville Woods.

Woods’ work in telephony and telegraphy, McCoy’s work in engine lubrication and Latimer’s work in the manufacturing of carbon filaments for Edison’s light bulbs made them forerunners in their fields for which they received praise and recognition in a time when such adulation for African-Americans was rare. McCoy’s invention lead users to coin the phrase “the real McCoy”. Latimer’s work was so important to the field of electric light technology that he was given one (out of twenty-eight) of the coveted spots in the Edison Pioneers, a group that represented the highest honor in the electrical field. Woods, known in some circles at the time as the “Black Edison”, pioneered different uses of telegraphy, allowing communication between station houses and moving trains.

This paper will cover what these inventors were famous (and not so famous) for, how their backgrounds as the children of former slaves impacted their opportunities and educations, and how their race played a part in their notoriety as well as how their inventions changed our lives.

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