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.

Next time, what happened after I got the paper back.

Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 5 – The Fruit of Their Labor

While McCoy’s inventions earned millions of dollars in profit, little of that money found its way into his pockets. Because he lacked the financial backing to manufacture his lubricators himself in large numbers he sold many of his patent rights to investors. In return for this he was given only small amounts that allowed him to continue his research. McCoy was awarded at least 72 patents during his long lifetime but retained ownership of only a few of them. Personally, he had happiness married to his wife Mary Eleanor for 50 years. At the end of his life McCoy he suffered from hypertension and senile dementia. He died in an infirmary in Eloise, Michigan, on October 10, 1929.15

Woods remained an independent inventor his entire life, always remaining outside of the technological mainstream of Bell and Edison. The never ending scourge of his life became having to constantly defend his patents in court. As people of the time were always inventing it was natural that several people could come up with the same idea at roughly the same time. Because of this, the majority of Woods’ money went to fighting legal disputes. After years of being destitute and penniless he suffered a stroke on January 30, 1910 at Harlem Hospital in New York City – killing him at the young age of 53. Despite his great success as an inventor and amassing over 60 patents in total, he had little to show for it. His simple ground-level headstone in East Elmhurst, New York reads “Granville T. Woods, Esq, 1856-1910, Electrician – Inventor.”16

Latimer understood incandescent light in ways that few other men did, enough so that Thomas Edison himself asked him to work for him and help defend Edison’s patents against competitors. Later in life Latimer worked as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. He married Mary Wilson on December 10, 1873. They had two daughters, Emma and Louise. In 1918 Latimer was asked to join the Edison Pioneers, a group of distinguished men who had participated in the early years of the electric light industry. Membership in this group represented the highest honor to individuals in the electrical field, and he was one of the original 28 charter members, all of whom had worked with Edison prior to 1885. In addition to this he volunteered his time to help the community as well as an accomplished poet, author, musician and artist. He died at the age of 80.17

Next time, How They Made a Difference and Conclusion

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

Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 3 – The Educational System in 19th Century America

African-Americans at the end of the Civil War craved acceptance as a people and this hope was only partially reciprocated. Education in the late 19th Century was either a short-lived moment in a person’s life or a multi-year luxury that few in the general populace could afford. Whites had an easier path to it, but African-Americans had an even harder road toward it. But it wasn’t for trying. Booker T. Washington, the famous proponent of education for freedmen in the post-Reconstruction South, founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute to help educate African-Americans. He realized that in modern society African-Americans would have to be educated, and educated well, in order to excel. It was a belief that was shared by many African-Americans at the time: that education could help set them on an equal footing with their white counterparts in both jobs and social stature.

Educational reform in the United States was just gaining momentum in the late 19th century. Before that time educating enslaved African-Americans in the South was forbidden by law in many states, but in the North, where schools for African Americans did exist, they were generally housed in crowded buildings staffed by teachers of low q

ualifications and restricted to the knowledge of the teacher. African-American parents also grouped together to make private arrangements for schooling and often times hired their own teachers. Public schools did outnumber private ones, but the quality of educational services varied from school to school, with the quality of teaching depending on how much the parents were willing to spend to pay teachers.

In fact, many of the schools formed would hardly be recognized as such by modern standards. Elementary education was available to African-Americans, but higher, more specialized, educational services that would produce more respect among the already somewhat-doubting white class was harder to attain.

Due in part to this, illiteracy rates among African-Americans were tracked at a staggering 79.9% in 1870, the first year that such statistics were collected. With improvements in education this figure dropped by roughly 10% in each decade that followed underscoring the need for African-American education.11

It’s surprising then that education seemed to be of little factor in the success of any of the black inventors mentioned. Of the three, only one was able to attain a college degree – McCoy. While, conversely the most successful of the bunch – Woods who was also known as the “Black Edison” – had only a meager elementary school education. They proved that the sky was the limit for what could be achieved with creativity and knowledge of your subject against the traditional thinking that formal education alone stood as the foundation for invention of thought.

Next time, Education as the Foundation of Invention

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

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.

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

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.

Getting Nervous About “Lost”, Too, But Not Too Nervous

If you’ve read this blog for any period of time you know that I’ve loved, and then hated, and then loved “Lost”. It started out with a (literal) bang and then went downhill for awhile and then came back up and then kinda muddled around and then really hit its stride a season or two ago. And we’re coming down to the end on May 23 with a 2 1/2 hour series finale that producer Damon Lindelof has already said won’t answer every question out there. But it will answer some and I guess that’s what matters.

What will it answer and how will it answer it is the big question though. Will we ever be told why no children could be born on the island? Will we ever know who built the statue that Jacob lived inside of? Will we be told who eventually finished the donkey wheel project started so long ago by Jacob’s brother, the Man in Black? Will it be explained what was wrong with Sayid before he committed hari kari with the bomb in the submarine? And where is Daniel Faraday? I want him back one more time.

There’s a lot to answer, and judging from last week’s episode focusing on the relationship of Jacob and his brother, the showrunners are in no hurry to get to the finish line that they set out for themselves two seasons ago. Yeah, we got the answer from season two on who the bodies were in the cave, but that deserved a whole hour dedicated to one simple question?

I don’t think that the people who make the show are going to end it as some hallucination in Hurley’s crazy head or a dream that Aaron started having before he was born or fast forwarding five to 10, or more, years into the future and seeing whomever took over for Jacob downing another airliner or crashing a cruise ship or something. I just want a satisfying ending, not everything has to be explained and I know that everything won’t be explained (like how that plane was able to drop a food shipment on the island if normal people aren’t really able to travel to the island) but I want certain people to live (mainly Hurley) and for their stories to end with satisfying endings. Not much to ask.

Also, I’m going to see the Times Talks Live:Lost on May 20 where New York Times entertainment editor Lorne Manly is going to be talking live with producers Carlton Cuse and Lindelof. I’m sure they won’t give anything away (the finale is only 3 days later) but I bet they’ll hint at something. Maybe I’ll tweet it – that would be fun.

And what show will I watch after this is all over with? Maybe The Walking Dead.

Getting a Little Nervous About Iron Man 2….

I freaking loved Iron Man. Looooved it. Loved it so much I saw it twice and now own it on Blu-Ray and watch it about once a month. It’s a great film, and John Favreau did a great job of helming a possibly career-sinking film1Just ask Bryan Singer of Superman Returns fame.. It’s cool and smart and confident and funny and smart and Robert Downey Jr., who a few years ago I would have written off as Cory Haim-in-the-present material, soars as Tony Stark. And having anybody else play Stark 2Nicholas Cage and Tom Cruise were interested in playing Stark. would have been weird in hindsight.

And I really love that movie. I truly do.

And now Iron Man 2 is coming up this Friday. And I couldn’t be more nervous about it.

I’m worried it’s just gonna be terrible. I think my reasoning is that the first time around there wasn’t so much focus on who the bad guys are, and I think that the people playing the bad guys are bad choices. The Batman franchise started to die when the films focused more on the bad guys than on Batman. Mickey Rourke? Really? He looks terrible. And silly. And Scarlett Johansson? Man, she’s so one-note actress (like Natalie Portman) it’s not even funny.

Maybe it’s the product tie-ins (I’ve seen about 25 in the past couple of days) or the bad guys in the movie. I don’t know. Just have a strange feeling about this one. Maybe it’ll be different once I see it, and I’ll see it, but we’ll see.

UPDATE – The reviews are in and they aren’t that great. Compared to the 92% that the first Iron Man film got among the top critics on RT, IM2 has gotten a rousing 66%. One of my favorite authors, Cory Doctorow tweeted “Iron Man 2: the stupid, it burns. Wait for DVD, watch in Italian, pretend it’s opera.” I kinda feel bad for John Favreau, who’s a great director, but I’m sure he’s laughing all the way to the bank since IM2 brought in, in the opening weekend, $128,122,480. Typical Hollywood. We’ll see, after word of mouth, what the dropoff will be.

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