Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 4 – Education as the Foundation of Invention

Elijah McCoy was the most educated of the three. His parents, George and Mildred, both runaway slaves, fled to Canada from Kentucky. When the Canadian rebellions of 1837 broke out against Great Britain, George sided in the hostilities with the British. After the Red River Rebellion, as it was called, was quashed by the Crown, George was given 160 acres of farmland near Colchester, Ontario for his loyalty and service. Elijah was born there on March 27, 1844, one of 12 children that George and Mildred had. When he was three his family moved back to the U.S., settling in Detroit, Michigan, and it was in nearby Ypsilanti that McCoy would do his inventing.

As a boy McCoy was fascinated with tools and machines, and when the opportunity arose to be educated about his interests arose he jumped at it. At sixteen years old he traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to serve an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering, and while he was there he won the credentials of a master mechanic and engineer. Interestingly though, upon finishing his education he returned to his hometown to find employment as a mechanical engineer. He found the prejudices against educated blacks ran strong and beliefs that they were intellectually inferior were widespread, leading many potential employers to believe that McCoy couldn’t be as skilled as he claimed he was, and if he were, the whites that he might supervise would probably not take orders from a black man. Which is what lead him to take a job on the railroad giving him the exposure to engines and the ideas for improving their lubrication that he might not otherwise have had.12

Granville Woods was Australian by birth and moved  and emigrated to Missouri with his family in 1872 when he was 16. His schooling was overseas was meager and upon emigrating he began working as a fireman – a job whose sole purpose was to fuel the firebox of the engine to keep the steam levels high – with the Iron Mountain Railroad. While the self-taught Woods continued to teach himself about electricity, he worked a variety of transportation and industrial jobs. He did strive for more education and occasionally managed to get private tutoring or take night courses in engineering, but he never earned a degree.13

Lewis Howard Latimer was the son of runaway slaves. Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848 to George and Rebecca Latimer who had fled his master in Virginia for the safety of Trenton, New Jersey six years prior. When George’s master, James B. Gray arrived where the Latimers had settled in Boston to take them back to Virginia, famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison took up the cause. Eventually funds were raised to pay Gray $400 for George’s freedom.

From those beginnings, Lewis had a minimal school-based education. Most of what he knew came from on-the-job training and what he could pick up here and there. He eventually joined the Navy during the Civil War and afterward he began work at Crosby Halstead and Gould where he learned most of the skills that he would later employ in his work: sketching patent drawings.14

Next time, The Fruit of Their Labor

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