Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 1 – Introduction

I finished the paper. Turned out to be good (thanks to Kim’s editing) and my presentation went over pretty well and I only stopped once to look down at my notes. After cramming to finish this I felt like I’d studied for an exam I knew it so well.

You’ll notice superscripts throughout the posts. Those are for the endnotes that were part of the hard copy. I will not be including that in this; no point in doing that.

Also, if you find this paper and copy it, believe me, there are ways to find you. The Internet is a glorious and wonderful place, and I’m posting my paper because I’m proud of it, but that works two ways – me being nice, and you, the reader, playing nice too.

And so without further ado….
Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century
African-Americans down through the centuries, whether slave or free, improvised and created tools and machines that helped them either in the fields or in the cities of the United States during the Nineteenth Century. As The Colored American put it November 14, 1903 –

“It should be borne in mind that the great industrial burden in the South fell almost wholly upon the Negro slaves, not only in agriculture and domestic labor, but in mechanical pursuits as well: so that through his experiences in field and workshop the Negro laborer was enabled – indeed forced – to devise many an new practical contrivance for minimizing the exactness of manual labor.”1

On the plantations of the South, where African-Americans of many skills and strengths were often grouped together, new tools and machines were created that helped ease the back-breaking day to day labor. In the cities, mind-numbingly tedious labor, such as the construction of shoes, was made simple and quick by inventors such as Jan Ernst Matzeliger, who’s shoe lasting machine revolutionized the shoe industry, drastically cutting production time and man hours.

As early as the late 19th century African-American inventors were beginning to be recognized for their accomplishments. “The oft-repeated accusation against the Negro that he is an imitator and not an inventor does not stand the test when brought under the limelight of investigation,” claimed a reporter in 1908 in the Seattle Republican. Which was true. According to the Governmental Patent Office at that time, it was estimated that of the 900,000 total patent rights that had been granted in the history of the office about 1,000 of those came from African-American inventors. Henry E. Baker, one of the first Black Patent Examiners in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said, “…the records of this office do not distinguish between inventors as to race but only to nationality (but black inventors)…not only served to raise the standard of the inventors materially and socially but (have) greatly aided in increasing the facilities of civilization.”2

African-Americans, often without the benefits of higher education, were starting to make noted, valuable contributions to the American landscape, even if they as a people were still not fully accepted as social or intellectual equals in white America. This paper will focus on the backgrounds, work and inventions of three influential African-American Inventors of the 19th Century inventors: Lewis Latimer, Elijah McCoy and Granville Woods. It will address their inventions, the social and racial climate at the time and how their race impacted their opportunities and educations.

Next time, their inventions.