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Category: History

Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 2 – The Inventions – Lewis Latimer

Latimer’s excellent artistic flair and drafting abilities at Crosby, Halstead and Gould – a patent law firm – advanced him quickly and he found himself eventually working for Alexander Graham Bell. At Bell’s patent law firm, he was in charge of drafting the necessary drawings required to receive a patent for Bell’s telephone. After a time with Bell, he found employment at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, where he patented in 1881 the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons”, an improved method for the production of carbon filaments for light bulbs. Latimer’s patent improved on the original designs of Thomas Edison, who’s light bulbs, because of the way the carbon fibers that emitted light were constructed, would often break after only a couple of days.

In discussing the improvements, Latimer stated in his patent application for the process –

“My invention relates more particularly to carbonizing the conductors for incandescent lamps, though it is equally applicable to the manufacture of delicate sheets or strips of dense and tough carbon designed for any purpose whatsoever….

“When heated the confining-plates expanded, while the blanks between them contract very considerably under the intense heat of the furnace, so that many of them are broken and distorted in consequence of their extremely-delicate structure and their tendency to shift their position between the plates. This I avoided by the method I propose…”

His method was to coat the carbon in graphite (to keep it from sticking) and then place it inside of a cardboard sleeve which would prevent the super-heated carbon from breaking during the carbonizing process. His method reduced the amount of broken carbons to almost zero, allowing for more useable carbons instead of the few that were being produced per batch at the time. His mass production process could be applied to many different uses, and because of this the Latimer carbons had a much longer life and made them less expensive.10

Next time, The Educational System in 19th Century America

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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 2 – The Inventions – Granville T. Woods

The rock star of African-American inventors of the 19th century, Woods enjoy great fame during his lifetime. “The most noted Negro inventor of the country today is Granville T. Woods, of New York, having patented more than forty devices, relating to the control of electricity. One was sold to Bell Telephone for $10,000.”7

After working in the railroad industry for several years Woods moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and set up a firm for production of telephones and other electrical equipment. While there, at the age of 31, he patented a means of telegraphy for trains to communicate with station houses using wires on the roofs of the train cars. He based his idea on trolley car wires, attaching to another wire suspended above the train track. The Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph was a major breakthrough in telegraphy which, because it allowed communications between individual trains and stations, greatly reduced railway accidents by allowing dispatchers to communicate the locations of trains to other trains. As Woods put it in his patent application:

“My invention relates to induction-telegraphy, having reference to its use between moving vehicles, particularly on railways; and its object is to obtain increased effects from a given dynamic force with a single permanent conductor, thereby economizing in respect to the plant employed.”8

This was the first time train operators had been able to give and receive information about their location that could be immediately passed on to other moving trains. The Washington Bee lauded him for his discoveries:

“Granville T Woods is the smartest colored man in Ohio. He is an inventor who will someday make Edison look to his laurels. Never a day passes but that he invents something new, and his only pleasure is to experiment in electricity and applied mechanics.

“…the most notable of Mr. Woods’ inventions is a plan for telegraphing from one moving train to another. When a railroad engineer he thought out this device. Afterwards the same thing was discovered by Riley Smith and Edison perfected it, but Woods was the first in the field and he has successfully established his claim in the courts.”9

Woods was fascinated by what electricity could do when harnessed properly, and his advances in in-motion telegraphy saved countless lives. During the rest of his career as an inventor, applied for more than 60 patents, among them a steam boiler furnace, an automatic air brake, a tunnel construction for electric railway and an electromechanical brake.

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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 2 – The Inventions – Elijah McCoy

The three inventors of focus didn’t have many advantages from life in general. Certainly not what you would expect from men who went on to be groundbreaking inventors. Two were the children of escaped slaves, the third of mixed race at a time when this was entirely socially unacceptable. However, despite what their parents were able to provide for them, each man leveraged his ideas and intellect to spur progress and invent things that would change the world for the better.


Elijah McCoy
Elijah McCoy’s great invention, the one that would secure his name in the American lexicon, was something that solved a common problem among all crews of trains – lubricating engine parts. In 1870 McCoy took a job with the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman – part of his duties included oiling the engine. Crews would often have to stop their locomotives, sometime for hours on end, and oil the engine to prevent overheating. This caused passenger and mail delays and stretched long locomotive travel times even longer. 3

McCoy thought of a way to eradicate this problem. As he said in his patent application, in flowery language, “To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, ELIJAH MCCOY, of the city of Ypsilanti, in the county of Washtenaw and the state of Michigan, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Lubricators; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description thereof, reference being had to the accompanying drawing and to the letters of reference marked thereon, which form a part of this specification.

“The nature of my invention consists in the construction and arrangement of a lubricator for steam-cylinders, as will be hereinafter more fully set forth.”

McCoy then set about explaining his incredibly simple but revolutionary device: A covered cup, containing lubricating oil, with a hollow stem at the bottom that had a valve that would be forced upward as steam pressure exerted force on the valve. When the steam opened the valve lubricating oil would drip out of the cup, dispensing oil to the engine parts requiring the oil.4

McCoy took a problem that had plagued engineers for decades and solved it with a device so simple yet so invaluable that competitors began to copy his invention, leading discerning people with a want for the true article to ask for “the Real McCoy”.5

As a 1903 The Colored American put it in an article about African-American inventors –

“At the head of the list stands the name of Elijah McCoy, of Detroit. He has succeeded in placing his lubricators on many of the steam-car and steamboat engines in the Northwest, and also on some of the Trans-Atlantic steamers. And these are said to net him a handsome royalty.”6

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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.

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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: An Exercise in Frustration

So the paper is coming along but not fast enough. I have 10 pages but need 12-15. And now I’m getting nervous. I don’t know why, it’s just that I’m not done yet, and I did procrastinate (who doesn’t?) but I’m trying to make up for lost time now. I was sick for days and the thing is due on Thursday. With it being due on Thursday I’ve got a bunch of stuff written and I’m trying to make it cohesively come together. McCoy, Latimer and Woods, you are frustration!

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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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Operation Downfall, Part II

Downfall would have been the largest amphibious landing in history, including 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, 400 destroyers and other ships. Fourteen U.S. divisions A division is a large military unit usually consisting of around ten to twenty thousand soldiers. would take part also as they used Okinawa as a staging base and then seized the southern portion of the island of Kyushu. The invasion was scheduled to start on November 1, 1945. But there were some other considerations that the planners had to take into account.

There was, naturally, to be a deception plan leading up to the Olympic invasion. By having such a plan it was hoped, as all deception plans in war were, that Allied casualties would be minimized because the enemy force would believe that it needed to focus itself elsewhere. The plan to precede Olympic was Operation Pastel, wherein which the Joint Chiefs of Staff would attempt to fool the Japanese into thinking that a direct invasion of the southern islands had been rejected and instead that the Allies would focus first on Japanese forces still in mainland China. The first strike would be a false Allied attack on China’s Chusan-Shanghai area, with a fictional landing date of October 1, 1945. This was to be followed by one of the smaller southern Japanese islands, Shikoku. After this the Allies hoped to surprise the Japanese with the Olympic invasion.

All of this was leading up to X-Day, as it was called, where the Alllied forces would invade Kyushu along the eastern, southeastern, southern and western coasts of the island near the towns of Miyazaki, Ariake, and Kushikino. The invasion force was to consist of three main groups landing on 35 different beaches, all codenamed after makes of automobiles. The Eastern Assault Force consisting of the 25th, 33rd and the 41st Infantry Divisions, would land near Miyaski and quickly move inland to capture Miyazaki and its nearby airfield. The Southern Force which was to consist of the 1st cavalry Division, the 43rd Division and American Division would land inside Ariake Bay and capture Shibushi and to capture, further inland, the city of Kanoya and its surrounding airfield. On the western shore of Kyushu near Kushikino the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Marine Divisions would land and split, part of which would head inland to capture Sendai while the other half captured the port city of Kagoshima. Once these areas were secured more Allied reinforcements consisting of three American divisions would be brought in each month to strengthen the hold on the occupied portion of Kyushu.

Before and during all of this activity the U.S. Twentieth Air Force would be bombing strategic targets such as railroads, airfields and the various beaches that were to be hit. With a successful bombing campaign it was hoped that they could minimize any fast means that reinforcements could utilize to arrive at the various invasion points.

The four month timetable for Olympic was not to conquer the entire island but to gain a foothold for the Allies to jump off of and use as a staging ground for the even bigger invasion – Coronet. More on it in part 3.1The info for this piece came, once again, from Wikipedia, the the Combined Arms Research Library

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Have You Ever Actually Read the Declaration of Independence?

Well…you should. Here it is.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

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Operation Downfall, Part I

As 1944 turned into 1945 an Allied victory in the Pacific was creeping closer to reality. Little by little American forces were rolling up the Japanese defenses one island at a time as they pushed the invaders back further and further towards the Japanese mainland. Guam had been taken, the Philippines were being contained and bombing on Iwo Jima was underway. In this atmosphere of cautious optimism the ideas for Operation Downfall, as it would be called, were being hashed out by the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Argonaut Conference 1The codename for The Yalta Conference, the 1945 wartime meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin held on the tiny island of Malta in the Mediterranean. The conference called for the defeat of Japan within eighteen months of the surrender of Germany, and this would entail a possible amphibious landing on the Japanese mainland itself. At the time the Manhattan Project was a closely guarded secret so the members at the conference didn’t even take its existence into account.

The conference had many other factors to think about also. How could they force an unconditional Japanese surrender with the least amount of Allied casualties in the shortest period of time? Originally a joint British-American team had written a document entitled “Appreciation and Plan for the Defeat of Japan” where they didn’t foresee an invasion until after 1947 but the conference felt that dragging the war out that far would have dangerous consequences to American morale at home. And not only would the Allies face Japanese military units but also a “fanatically hostile population”. Fighting the Japanese military was one thing, facing an entire population armed with various weapons carrying out banzai attacks was another. The death toll on both sides could have been tremendous.

In light of this the US Navy urged a sea blockade and airpower to bring about surrender. The US Army Air Force, using captured airbases in China and Korea would be able to bombard Japan into submission.2A sea blockade had helped the US defeat another enemy roughly 80 years previous to this – The Confederate States of America. The US Army, though, believed that the strategy could prolong the war for an indeterminate amount of time and needlessly waste lives. In light of this the Army’s opinion won out.

And so planning on the two-part invasion began. It was to be broken into two operations, Olympic and Coronet with Olympic scheduled to begin on X-Day – November 1, 1945.3Info for this post came from both Military History Encyclopedia on the Web and Wikipedia.

We’ll talk about the first phase, Olympic, next time.

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Our Tallest and Shortest Presidents

I just finished reading Geoffrey Perret’s book “Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief”. It’s a great read, especially for someone like me who was never very interested in anything to do with the Civil War. In it Abraham Lincoln becomes less mythic, as he has become today, and more human, bothered by the struggles with life, the Confederacy and Congress that he must deal with on a 24 hour basis.

But on the lighter side of having the possibility of the Union torn asunder forever, he was the tallest president we’ve had – 6 ft 4 in. [1. He narrowly beats out Lyndon B. Johnson who comes in just under Lincoln at 6 ft 3½ in. Johnson was also known for using the toilet in front of underlings he wanted to intimidate.] He often would talk about how he never had to look up to anybody since he was always the tallest man in the room. On meeting a wounded Union soldier that was taller than him, he remarked, “Hello, comrade. Do you know when your feet get cold?”

James Madison, the president that got us into probably our most pointless war [2. The War of 1812. You remember it – Washington D.C. got burned by the British?] was our shortest president, coming in at just 5 ft 4 in.

And our tallest first lady? Eleanor Roosevelt. She was 6 ft tall. While Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, was probably our shortest first lady, measuring in at 5 ft 2 in. [3. The info for this piece came from WIkipedia and also from “Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief” by Geoffrey Perret.]

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