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Glenn Vance Posts

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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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.

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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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Why Avatar Was Revolutionary and the Studios Just Don’t Understand Why

Ever since Jame’s Cameron’s Avatar hit movie theaters last year people have been oohing and ahhing at the technology that was employed to make the very-true-to-life planet of Pandora seem real. His use of 3-D technology and the ability to create photorealistic computer-generated characters out of pixels was cool and ahead of its time and cost a whole lot of money to make…and it shows. The film *looks* great and it’s enjoyable and all, but I’m glad it didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar. That would have been like giving Star Wars the Best Picture for having really awesome special effects.

And everyone said that Avatar would be a game changer, the meme was coming down the pipe even before the movie was released and the whole understanding of why it would be the game-changer-to-be was because of the photorealistic characters. But for some reason that whole angle of the film has been lost in the cloud that it was in 3-D.

Glorious 3-D! Plants and animals and those Huey helicopter looking VTOLs and floating mountains and all. All of it in 3-D. And like I said earlier, the film looks great.

So now other studios have latched onto that breaking new technology from the 1950’s also and films all over the place are about to be released in 3-D, whether you want them to be or not. Clash of the Titans was filmed in standard 2-D, but after Avatar splashed big Warner Bros. went back and made Titans into 3-D to satisfy this unquenchable desire for Perseus and the Kraken and Medusa’s head to be in 3-D. The remake of Piranha is going to be in 3-D and even more films are coming out in that cutting edge 20th Century technology.

But butts in the seats in theaters have been declining for the past several years since HD has been introduced into the home theater market. The big studios have been asking themselves what could bring people back to the theater and they think they’ve found it, for now.

Going back to the game changer – I don’t see why the studios haven’t figured out yet why Avatar is really such a big deal, because it’s fairly obvious. Maybe it’s because of legal issues that would be involved in the making of film, but the logical end to what Avatar has brought us is filmmakers being able to have any actor or actress, living or dead, in their film. George C. Scott as Robert E. Lee in a Ridley Scott picture? Done. Jimmy Stewart and Jim Carrey finally together in a comedy after all this time? Doable. Grace Kelly back to play Julia Roberts’ mother? Not impossible. All it takes is a bunch of LEDs on a stand-in actor’s head and we can paint Charlie Chaplin in a new comedy from the Farrelly brothers. He could eat poop or something and then do a funny dance.

Voice talent could be big then and actors that never got work before could (secretly) put blockbusters on their resumes. Like I said, legal issues abound, since the families of these people might disagree with allowing their loved ones to return from the grave to be resurrected again on the big screen, but everyone in Hollywood has a price, right?

So 3-D? It’s a fad again. Hollywood should look to the real future – harvesting dead actors for profit.

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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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Things We Can All Do Without, Part 3: Nostalgia for Hair Metal Bands

Dear Hair Metal Bands,

I’ve been noticing that, for some crazy-ass reason, you’re making a comeback on that radio station that I hate to listen to but have to hear when I’m in the car with my wife and kids. You know who you are, you Def Leopards and you Whitesnakes and you Poisons. I’d even throw in Twisted Sister, since I keep hearing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on that station and even on commercials. What’s up with this trend?

It’s probably some “our core demographic was in junior high or high school when these songs were originally popular, so to make them feel young again and increase revenue through advertising, let’s give them the songs that were cool when they were kids” thing. Like that whole Beatles Rock Band game and the “Oh God, Patrick Kennedy is quitting the House! What will we do without a Kennedy in government?” thing.

But man, I hate this music. Its corny factor, the lame “Eighties kids” being a demographic of buyers of this crap. Hair metal was silly in 1985, why would it be any different now? When you look at some of these bands’ websites you see that they’re just a bunch of old guys trying to hang on to whatever they had 20 years ago. They probably want the same things they got 20 years ago too: teenage girls and booze, which, if they were 20 years younger, wouldn’t seem so creepy and gross. Of course now they’re like Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, sleeping with middle age to early AARP aged women that used to be the teenage girls they slept with back in 1985 and playing in venues that 20 years ago they wouldn’t want to be anywhere near.

So all of you hair metal guys still trying to hang on (I’m also looking at you, Enuff Z’nuff). Man, get new lives. Reinvent yourselves. No one would fault you. Even David Lee Roth and Dee Snider tried radio gigs. There are othere things in this world besides your hit record on pop radio 20 years ago. Give it a shot, it could work.

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