Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 6 – How They Made a Difference and Conclusion
Each of the men discussed in this paper made a rather remarkable contribution to the scientific pursuits, some more lasting than others. McCoy’s invention has probably been the one with the longest-lasting significance. As was true then, if you don’t lubricate an engine it will quit working from the friction. All engines, whether they are automobile, airplane or boat, must be lubricated in order to remain functional. McCoy’s drip cup became the basis for the self-lubricating engines of modern times.
Woods’ Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph brought efficiency and safety to rail travel at a time when train collisions could be common. With the invention of the telephone and further advancements in communications technology, the telegraph became an antiquated means of communication. Although obsolete on its own, his invention was one of a serious of steps into a wider world of communication that we use today.
Latimer’s invention set the standard in lighting for the 25 years that followed. In 1904 William D. Coolidge developed an incandescent light bulb using tungsten, which extended bulb life far beyond Latimer’s carbon-filament bulb.
As Henry E. Baker said in The Colored American, “It is held to be of far greater importance to show that the Negro as a race has actually accomplished very much of value in the line of invention, and thus to show how much in error are those who constantly assert that the Negro has made no lasting contribution to the civilization of the age. These facts ought clearly to show that under favorable environment the Negro is capable of performing his whole duty in the work of mankind, whether it be tilling the earth with his hoe or advancing the world by his thought.”18
McCoy, Woods and Latimer all came from modest beginnings. They didn’t have privilege but they worked hard and found recognition, and some a measure of fame, from what they were able to do with ideas, sweat and ingenuity. Their ability to rise up paved the way for modern African-American inventors like Dr. Mark Dean, who was instrumental in the creation of the personal computer for IBM; George Alcorn, the developer of the imaging x-ray spectrometer; and theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Jackson, who helped create the portable fax, the touch tone telephone and the fiber optic cables used to provide clear overseas telephone calls.19 As pioneers in their scientific fields, these men broke past the barriers of their time to open up new avenues for others that would follow.