Edison, Franklin, Tesla, DaVinci, Bell, Wright, Marconi, Babbage, Goodyear. These inventors’ names are synonymous with the technologies that have defined their times. They have another thing in common; they’re all white men. But many Black inventors have helped to mold our world, even if their names aren’t as well known, and no, I’m not talking about George Washington Carver. My name’s…
As I’ve said before, history is written as all white men all the way down. In honor of Black History Month, here’s a two-parter on black inventors who have made our lives easier and in some cases even saved them. Black History month is in February not as a short-shrift, but because many important events in the civil rights movement happened in February, like the birth of W.E.B. Dubois, the swearing in of the first black senator, the founding of the NAACP, and the death of Malcolm X. Bonus fact: the Marvel characters Professor X and Magneto are allegories for MLK and Malcolm X, respectively.
If you listened to one of our earliest episodes, Firsts That Weren’t,” you’ll know that the idea of a light source made by passing current through a material in a sealed glass was not unique or original to Thomas Edison. He and his team built on the work of others, including Lewis Latimer, one of the most important Black inventors of all time both both the sheer volume of inventions and the sheer importance of his most famous one. Latimer was born in Massachusetts in 1848 to parents who had escaped slavery in Virginia six years earlier. Lewis Latimer’s father George had been re-captured by his erstwhile owner, but the situation gained great notoriety, even reaching the Massachusetts Supreme Court, before George was purchased by abolitionists who set him free. Lewis served in the United States Navy for the Union during the Civil War and was honorably discharged. After the war, Latimer secured a position as an office boy with a patent law firm. This would prove a fortuitous hiring, for Latimer and maybe for all of us. His skill at drawing the designs for patent applications saw him promoted to head draftsman, which also brought a substantial raise, from $3 a week to $20. To put the cherry on top, he married soon thereafter. That same year, Latimer, along with one W.C. Brown, created an improved design for train bathrooms, a feature you definitely wanted working to its fullest if you’re going to be on the train for days at a time.
In 1876, Latimer was contacted by a teacher for deaf children, who needed sketches done for his patent application for a communication device. The device would be the telephone and the teacher was Alexander Graham Bell. Latimer rushed to finish the patent application, which was submitted mere hours before another application was submitted by Elisha Gray for a similar device, but that’s a story for another day. A few years later, Latimer was hired by U.S. Electric Lighting Co in Bridgeport, CT as the assistant manager and draftsman. U.S. Electric Lighting was owned by Hiram Maxim, the chief rival to Thomas Edison. Electric lights were made of a glass bulb which surrounded a carbon wire filament, generally made of bamboo, paper or thread. The lack of air inside the bulb meant that the filament would glow rather than combust when the electrical current caused it to heat up. Early filments were made of things that burned out quickly, like in only a few days quickly. Disposable lightbulbs were unlike to see wide adoption, so the key to success would be in making the filaments, and thus the bulbs, last longer. Latimer devised a way of encasing the filament with, counter-intuitive as it may seem, a cardboard envelope. This stopped the carbon from snapping, prolonging the useful life of the bulb, making them more efficient, more desirable, and by the economy of scale, less expensive. Electric lights were soon being added to homes and streets, chasing away the dark and the previous solutions of candles and gas lights.
While we’ve largely forgotten Latimer and his simple but very effective contribution, he was well known in his time. Not only was he sought after to continue improving incandescent lighting, but, as more major cities began wiring their streets for electric lighting, Latimer was dispatched to lead the planning team. He helped to install the first electric power plants in Philadelphia, New York City, and even up into Montreal, as well as overseeing the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government buildings and major thoroughfares. In an apparent spirit of ‘keep your friends close but your enemies close, Edison hired Latimer in 1890 as chief draftsman and patent expert in the legal department of Edison Electric Light Company, which would eventually become General Electric. There he drafted drawings and documents for Edison patents and looked for patent applications that would infringe on Edison’s patents, which sometimes required him to testify in court about the matter. He was also the author of “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System,” the definitive work on the subject at the time. The name Lewis Latimer was included as a charter member of the Edison Pioneers, a distinguished group of people deemed responsible for creating the electrical industry.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Latimer continued to invent. In 1894 he created a safety elevator. How was it safe? For starters, you were much less likely to fall down an open elevator shaft. Latimer’s other inventions ranged from a locking rack for hats and coats, so no one could steal your from a restaurant while you’re eating or take yours by accidents, to an apparatus for cooling and disinfecting hospitals that removed dust from the air and helped to slow the spread of bacteria in the hospital. He also painted, wrote poetry and music, and worked to improve the civil rights of Black citizens in the US, all while continuing to invent. In his lifetime, Lewis Latimer received 7 patents in his own name, 2 under Maxim, and one shared with a co-inventor.
As with the filaments in incandescent bulbs, it is often a third party’s improvement on a design that makes it practical and therefore successful. Such was the case with electret transducer technology, which is found in 90% of today’s microphones, including the one I’m talking into right now. That word that sounded like a mispronunciation is electret, meaning “a permanently polarized piece of dielectric material, analogous to a permanent magnet.” Luckily, we don’t need to understand how the sausage is made to learn about James West. Born in Virginia in 1931, West enjoyed taking appliances and machines apart to see how they worked. “If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger,” West later recalled. After what is only referred to as “an accident with a radio he had tinkered with,” which is burying the lead slightly, West became doubly fascinated by electricity and knew that that was where his future lay. His parents were less convinced of his chances of landing a technical career in the Jim Crow south and hoped he might instead become a doctor. Undeterred, West studied physics at Temple University, spending his summers as an intern in Bell Labs’ Acoustics Research Department. He was hired on as an acoustical scientist after getting his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1957.
In 1960, West and a colleague set out to a microphone that would be more sensitive, smaller, *and less expensive than the mics that were on the market at the time. Electret mics had been invented in Japan in 1920, but wouldn’t be a marketable product for 40 years. The quality of mics during that time was poor and its service life was limited. [clip] West’s design relied on improving electret transducers. I would like to explain to you what an electret transducer is, but, even after watching several YouTube videos on the subject, I’m like a monkey with a math problem. I tried, I really did. Anywhoski, West’s design solved the past shortcomings and by the end of the 1960’s, the electret microphone, also called a condenser mic, was in mass production and quickly cemented itself as the standard technology for not only microphones for singing or recordings speech, but telephones, camcorders, baby monitors, hearing aids, and more. Without West’s work, microphones would not have been small enough or cheap enough to include in many products. West went on to be appointed president-elect of the Acoustical Society of America, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and holds more than 250 patents. He had also been outspoken on the need to get women and people of color into science and technology.
Do you remember the Henson workshop show Dinosaurs? [not the mama clip] Yeah, that one. It was so good. Like a lot of TV shows, Dinosaurs did a Christmas special, but unlike the Flinstones, who inexplicably celebrated the birth of Christ no less than three times, Dinosaurs gathered the family together to celebrate the most important thing in their home–the refrigerator. The fridge changed them from nomads to suburbanites. The Sinclair family would have loved Frederick Jones. Frederick Jones was born in Ohio in 1893, to a white father and black mother, who left them when Frederick was young, though accounts vary on if that was by choice or by her death. His father, unable to raise him alone, sent Frederick to be raised by a priest in Kentucky, and died two years later. At age 11, Frederick Jones decided to take his chances fending for himself. Despite a challenging childhood, he was a prodigy. He worked what jobs he could, including being janitor in a mechanic shop. It was here that he developed a knack for working on cars and other machines. He was so good, he was eventually made foreman of the shop. Through his teens and young adulthood, Jones taught himself mechanical and electrical engineering and invented a wide range of devices. By the time he was twenty, Jones was able to secure an engineering license in Minnesota. His skills served him and others well when World War I found him in the army, where he was often called upon to repair equipment.
After the war, the town in which Jones lived decided to fund a new radio station, and Jones built the transmitter it needed to broadcast its programming. He also developed a device to combine moving pictures with sound. You know, talkies. A local businessman hired Jones to improve the sound equipment that his firm produced for the film industry. From family cars, to radio transmitters, to talking pictures and beyond, Jones continued to expand his interests in the 1930s. He designed and patented a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food. Forming a partnership with the aforementioned businessman, Jones founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company. This product revolutionized several industries including shipping and grocery businesses. Grocery chains were now able to import and export products which previously could only have been shipped as canned goods. Thus, the frozen food industry was created and the world saw the emergence of the “supermarket.”In addition to installing the Thermo King refrigeration units in trucks and tractor-trailers, Jones modified the original design so they could be outfitted for trains, boats and ships. WWII came along and the war effort proved good for business, as Jones’ business proved good for the war effort. Refrigerated trucks weren’t just handy for moving food, but were essential for getting medicines and blood, more on that later, to the troops. Always looking to improve his designs, Jones developed a prototype which would eventually allow airplanes to parachute these units down behind enemy lines to the waiting troops. By 1949, U.S. Thermo Control was worth millions. You’ll find Frederick Jones’ name on more than 60 patents. Most have something to do with refrigeration, but his CV also includes patents related to X-ray machines, engines, and sound equipment. He became the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineersand was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991.
RT’s and tags from Eric, Richard, Marja, Mango Publishing, the most stable genius, Strange Animals, Odd Dad Out, Presidencies and of course, Ignorance Was Bliss, who had me on her show last week to discuss The Silent Twins, June and Jennifer Gibbons, and y’all, Kate has her research game on lock.
How did you do on last week’s clues? The pictures were various containers of milk, a pregnant man, and Adam Baldwin as Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket. The topic was strange gestations/incubations, birth and nursing in the animal kingdom. The first person to guess correctly before the episode posts Tuesday morning gets YBOF stickers.
There aren’t any new reviews through podcast apps this, but that gives me the chance to catch up on stuff that people have left on our FB that the Pages app didn’t notify me of. Christina Brown recommends the show, saying “Moxie, we found your podcast driving home one day around Christmas and listened to your Christmas special. We have listened to you ever since. We love your podcast! I totally count it as schoolwork (we’re homeschoolers) and now I’m indoctrinating my dad! Thank you!!!!” She left two recommendations, adding, “Moxie has such an interesting podcast. Her voice is beautiful. I love listening to her with my kids!”
Now normally this is where I’d welcome our most recent patrons (Urspo, Christina, Shanthi, Mackenzie) and ask you to support the show over at patreon.com/yourbrainonfacts. Today, I’m going to ask you not to do that. Not yet, anyway. Because between the 16-29 of February, everyone you joins URL or upgrades their membership gets CAH. Cost less. Get more: Spot The Lie
At the top of the show, I teased inventions that save lives. While it’s fairly clear how getting food, medicine, and blood to frontline troops saved lives, Jones is far from the only black inventor whose work did so. You could make the argument that incandescent bulbs make it safer to be outdoors at night or light operating theaters adequately so surgeons can see; or that tiny microphones have helped make us instantly connected, which is handy if you need to summon help after someone hits your car. But a Black inventor helped to reduce your risk of getting hit in the first place, as well as saved the lives of thousands of soldiers.
Garett Morgan was born seventh of eleven children in a poor Kentucky family in 1877, though when was the last time you heard of a rich family having so many kids? Morgan set at into the world at age 14, travelling north to Ohio in order to receive a better education, taking work as he found it. In Cleveland, he learned the inner workings of the sewing machine and in 1907 opened his own sewing machine sales and service business. In 1909, Morgan opened a tailoring shop, which is where he would begin his first invention. He noticed that the needle of a sewing machine moved so fast that its friction scorched woolen materials. Some sort of lubricant was in order, he reasoned, and he began to experiment. One way, when called away for supper, he wiped his hands onto a piece of pony-fur cloth, leather that still had fur on it. After supper, he found that the fur was standing straight up. To see if the fluid he’d been working with had straightened the fibers, Morgan put some on his neighbor’s Airedale, a wiry-haired dog. It worked so well, his neighbor didn’t recognize his own pet. Morgan then tried it on himself and found he’d inadvertently invented the first human-hair straightener. He marketed the product under the name the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream and sold by his G. A. Morgan Refining Company, which became a very successful business.
His next invention, three years later, was originally called the Safety Hood. The patent calls it a Breathing Device, but we know it as a Gas Mask. The Safety Hood consisted of a hood worn over the head of a person that had one tube that reached near the ground for clean air and a separate tube to exhale through. The bottom of the inlet tube was lined with a sponge type material to act as a filter. Morgan intended the device to be used “to provide a portable attachment which will enable a fireman to enter a house filled with thick suffocating gases and smoke and to breathe freely for some time therein, and thereby enable him to perform his duties of saving life and valuables without danger to himself from suffocation. The device is also efficient and useful for protection to engineers, chemists and working men who are obliged to breathe noxious fumes or dust derived from the materials in which they are obliged to work.”
The National Safety Device Company, with Morgan as its General Manager, was set up to manufacture and sell the device, which was soon winning prizes at industry events. The true test of the product came on July 24, 1916 when there was an explosion in a tunnel being dug under Lake Erie. The tunnel quickly filled with smoke, dust, and poisonous gases; 32 workers were trapped underground. There was no safe way to enter the site to rescue them. Then someone remembered Morgan’s Safety Hood. Garrett and his brother Frank quickly arrived at the scene, donned the Safety Hood and entered the tunnel. After a heart wrenching delay, Garrett appeared from the tunnel carrying a survivor on his back as did his brother seconds later. They weren’t able to save all of the workers, but those who were rescued couldn’t have been reached without the Safety Hood. Soon, orders came pouring in from fire and police departments across the country. Then the orders started being cancelled as people found out Morgan was Black. Apparently, when faced with the choice between gasping for breath as you die and acknowledging that a black person had made someone useful, they’d rather die. The poisonous gas attacks of WWI made them reconsider. Morgan’s Safety Hood, now known as the Gas Mask, was ordered by the United States Army and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers.
Saving thousands of lives would be enough for some of us, but not Garrett Morgan. After witnessing a collision between a car and a horse carriage, he determined to develop a way to automatically direct traffic without the need of a policeman or other person to be present. He patented an automatic traffic signal which he said could be “operated for directing the flow of traffic” and providing a clear and unambiguous “visible indicator.” GE bought the rights to the device for $40,000.00, more than half a million dollars today. Today’s modern traffic lights are based upon Morgan’s original design. At that point, Morgan was honored by many influential people, like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. Although his successes had brought him fame and fortune, as it were, Morgan never forgot that his fellow Blacks still suffered injustices and difficulties. He served as the treasurer of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men which eventually merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
If you’ve ever received a blood transfusion, you have Dr. Charles Drew to thank for it. That’s because in 1938, Dr. Drew helped pioneer a long-term technique for plasma storage, which helped in the production and transfer of blood. Drew was born in 1904 into a middle-class family in the interracial Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Drew won an athletics scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1926. Despite being an outstanding athlete, he was only allowed to join a fraternity as “an off-campus member,” because, say it with me now, segregation. After college, Drew spent two years as a professor of chemistry and biology, the first athletic director, and the football coach at the historically black private Morgan College in Baltimore, to pay for medical school. At McGill University in Montreal, Drew ranked second in his graduating class of 127 students and received a degree as Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery. After a few other appointments, Drew began graduate work at Columbia University in New York City on the award of a two-year Rockefeller fellowship in surgery. His postgraduate work earned him his Doctor of Science in Surgery at Columbia University. It was at Columbia that he gave a doctoral thesis on “Banked Blood,” based on an exhaustive study of blood preservation techniques. Because he didn’t have enough degrees, in 1940 he earned a Doctor of Science in Medicine degree, becoming the first black man to do so. All these years of study were inspired by a family tragedy, the loss of his sister to TB.
At the time that Drew was doing his research, blood could only be stored for a few days at a time. Drew discovered that separating plasma from red blood cells made it possible to store blood for a week, a significant improvement. He also discovered that transfusions could be performed with plasma alone, broadening the scope and reach of who could be treated. Working in the Department of Surgery at New York’s Presbytrian Hospital alongside Dr. John Scudder, one of the nation’s first blood transfusion specialists, Drew established and administered an early prototype program for blood storage and preservation, the sort of thing you think of when you think blood bank, but more useful than previous blood banks had been. By the time Drew received his doctorate in 1940, he had developed a technique for long-term plasma storage, leading to his nickname, “Father of the Blood Bank.”
His work got put to a real test when the British government requested 5,000 vials of dried plasma for transfusions in military hospitals during World War II. To meet the need, Dr. Drew organized blood drives at New York City hospitals. 15,000 people donated over the course of five months in a program called “Blood for Britain.” The American Red Cross took note and asked Drew to be the first director of its blood bank as the US prepared to enter the war. Drew accepted and, in February 1941, the Red Cross Blood Bank was underway, with 35 centers eventually set up throughout the U.S. to store blood reserves for injured servicemen. His work with the Red Cross, however, was short-lived. Later that year, Dr. Drew took a moral stand when the Red Cross announced it would segregate the blood of white and black donors. He denounced the decision on both moral and scientific grounds and resigned in protest.
Dr. Drew returned to Howard University as chair of surgery with a mission to train the next generation of black medical students. In 1942, he became the first black surgeon to be an examiner on the American Board of Surgery; in 1946, Drew was elected to the International College of Surgeons; in 1947, he launched a movement to persuade the American Medical Association to admit black members. Dr. Drew’s life ended shortly before his 47th birthday when he was killed in a car crash on his way to a medical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama, with his students. The three students traveling with him survived. His injuries required blood transfusion, but the man who made it possible to store blood for transfusions would not receive one. The hospital was for whites only.
And that’s… Except, that’s not what happened. Drew and three students *were in a car crash, but he wasn’t refused treatment, and he didn’t get a transfusion because it was counter-indicated by his injuries. According to one of the students-cum-doctor riding with him, John Ford, Drew ”had a superior vena caval syndrome — blood was blocked getting back to his heart from his brain and upper extremities. To give him a transfusion would have killed him sooner. Even the most heroic efforts couldn’t have saved him. I can truthfully say that no efforts were spared in the treatment of Dr. Drew, and, contrary to popular myth, the fact that he was a Negro did not in any way limit the care that was given to him.”