From Oppression to Invention – Seven Black American Inventors.

In honor of Black History Month I thought it was important to highlight some of the inventions of Black Americans. Every year, we learn about the achievements of Black Americans during the month of February. Achievements always include a list of black inventions but these lists never really go into detail of how inventors came up with their ideas that they brought to fruition.

After doing some research, I have found that most inventions of blacks happened around the time of the civil war and reconstruction. This may have been because the patenting process was somewhat still in its infancy and there probably weren’t as many roadblocks to acquire a patent as there are today. Or maybe the black population felt more able to freely create inventions in those days without the thought that there would be as many barriers to success as witnessed in today’s world. I also have found that these inventors not only created one invention, but many.

Nevertheless, it’s something important to note that there was a sense of more freedom in those days to be creative and contribute to society. The following is a little more background on some black inventors and how they came to create their inventions which have contributed to the modern world.

Frederick M. Jones – Refrigerator

Born to a white father and black mother, Frederick Jones was orphaned at the age of 7 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Jones dropped out of school after the 6th grade, getting a job as a cleaning boy and by age 14 was working as an automobile mechanic. He enjoyed learning about the trade and spent time researching up on new automobile innovations. After being in the service in World War I, he taught himself electronics and built a transmitter for his town’s new radio station. He also invented a device to combine sound with motion pictures. Later, while working for Cinema Supplies, improving sound equipment, he invented a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food, and received a patent for it on July 12, 1940. From there he went into partnership with his boss from Cinema Supplies, creating a company that we now know as Thermo King Corporation. The portable cooling units designed by Jones were especially important during World War II, preserving blood, medicine, and food for use at army hospitals and on open battlefields. He is known as the inventor of refrigeration.

Alfred L. Cralle – Ice Cream Scoop

Born in Wesley Chapel, Florida in 1866, Alfred Cralle worked with his father as a carpenter while becoming interested in mechanics. He attended Wayland Seminary in Washington D.C. one of a number of schools founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society to help educate African-Americans after the Civil War. After his time at Wayland he settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he served as a porter in a hotel and drug store. While working at the hotel he realized that servers were having difficulty scooping ice cream with their spoons to serve to patrons. He decided to design and develop the ice cream scoop. He applied and was given a patent in 1897 for his invention called the “Ice Cream Mold and Disher”, a scoop created with a built-in scraper to allow for one-handed operation. To this day Alfred’s design is reflected in modern day ice cream scoops.

Leonard Bailey – Folding Bed

Born in 1825, Leonard Bailey, rose in status as a journeyman barber. He grew to own several barbershops in the Washington D.C. area by the time of the civil war. In 1855, Bailey and seven other business men founded the Capitol Savings Bank to help the black community providing more affordable loans and insurance. In addition to his superb business acumen, Bailey is most widely known as a famous inventor. He was the creator of several inventions adopted by the US military and government. In 1883 he patented his most significant devices called the Truss-and-Bandage which was intended to help patients with lower-body hernias. The design was adopted by the U.S. Army Medical Board and provided funding for Bailey’s future ventures and inventions. With this funding Bailey invented a device for moving railway trains and a speed stamper for mail that the U.S. Postage Service used frequently. The most widely known invention created by Bailey was the folding bed which was patented in 1899 and the U.S. army adopted the invention as well, still used as the prototype for folding bed manufacturers today.

Philip B. Downing – The Mailbox

Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1857, Philip Downing was born to a well-known abolitionist father and restauranter grandfather (Thomas Downing) who was the owner of the very popular Downing’s Oyster House in the financial district of Manhattan New York. At that time Manhattan was known for its oysters. In 1890, Philip Downing’s “Street Railway Switches” patent was approved, allowing railway switches to be opened or closed by using a brass arm located next to the brake handle on the platform of the car. It also allowed the switches to be changed automatically in some cases. A year later, Downings patent for a street letter box was approved. It resembled the modern day blue post office boxes that we see around town in every U.S. city. Before its invention, those wishing to send mail usually had to travel to the post office. Downing’s invention would instead allow for drop off of mail near one’s home and easy pick-up by a letter carrier. His idea for the hinged opening prevented rain or snow from entering the box and damaging the mail. Years later his other patents for postal service improvements were also improved. To this day, his invention of the mailbox has made the most impact on society.

Garrett Augustus Morgan – Gas Mask / Traffic Light

Born at the end of the 19th century, with a sixth grade education, Garett Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 16 and became a self made entrepreneur. He invented and patented the first chemical hair straightener, started his own sewing equipment repair business, and even established a newspaper. In 1914 he patented the first gas mask invention which only gained popularity after a mining explosion accident which allowed workers stuck in a tunnel below Lake Erie to survive using the masks. Simarly used as a way to avoid disaster, Morgan invented the traffic signal after witnessing a horrific traffic accident on a roadway involving vehicles and pedestrians. His traffic signal was designed to stand on a street corner and notify vehicles and walkers whether they should stop or go.  After receiving a patent in 1923, the rights to the invention were eventually purchased by General Electric. Before his invention the traffic signal only gave two options, stop and go, which completely ignored the pedestrian.

Sarah Boone – The Ironing Board

Born in 1832 in North Carolina, Sarah Marshall was born to two enslaved parents. According to historical documents, she gained freedom when she married her freed husband James Boone. They later moved to New Haven, Connecticut where Sarah Boone worked as a dressmaker. Competing with other dressmakers, Boone wanted to find a way to make her dresses catch the eyes of her clients. At that time, dressmakers were ironing dresses using a wooden plank placed between two chairs. For fitted material, this method was not useful. In the 1890s she decided to invent a solution to create a narrower, curved board that could slip into sleeves and allow for a garment to be shifted without getting wrinkled. Her creation also was padded, to eliminate the impressions produced by a wooden board, and collapsible for easy storage. After only learning to write some years earlier, Boone applied for a patent and was awarded a patent in 1892. Her ironing board invention became the prototype for the ironing board that we use today.

Lyda Newman – Synthetic Hair Brush

Born in 1885 in Ohio, Lyda Newman, a young hairdresser, received her hair brush patent at the tender age of 13. Her invention stemmed from her brushing her and her clients hair, looking for a better design to make a brush last longer and comb through ethnic hair. The bristles of the brush she invented used synthetic material instead of animal hair. The synthetic bristles allowed the brush to last longer, be firmer, and not break easily. With this new design hairdressers could also take the bristles out and have a new brush much quicker than cleaning the entire brush between clients. Additionally, there was a compartment in the brush that debris such as dandruff and dirt would fall into and could easily be removed for cleaning. Newman’s brush was also unique because it had an air chamber that allowed airflow to the bristles, which helped the brush dry much faster. This helped the hairdresser to brush the wet strands of hair after shampooing the hair and quickly drying the brush to then style the hair when dry. Newman’s changes made the brush cheaper and easier to manufacture. The hair brush could now be used by all ethnicities, versus just one type. In addition to inventing a hair brush that revolutionized the hair industry, Newman was also a strong advocate for women’s rights.


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