There’s a company out there, you might have seen videos of their products online, that makes furniture that converts from a bed to a desk. Like an old-fashioned Murphy bed, but better, because the items on your desk and shelves can stay where they are. It’s sleek, modern, space-aged and futuristic. And it was first invented by a black woman in the 19th century. My name’s …
Right off the top, I want to say that this topic should not have been as difficult to research as it was. The inventions we’re talking about are common, everyday things that make modern living what it is. You would think the inventors would be household names. But they were black. And they were women. And so little is written about them. So if I start a new topic and skip right over their early life, it’s because I couldn’t find much more than the place and date of their birth.
It’s February as I record this. Those of us who are warmed by natural gas in our homes have a black woman to thank, one Alice Parker. When Parker patented her furnace in 1919, using natural gas to power a heating furnace was a revolutionary idea that conserved energy and paved the way for the central heating systems we all have in our homes today. Very little is known about Alice Parker’s life. She was born in 1895, grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, and attended classes at the Howard University Academy in Washington D.C. The academy was a high school connected to Howard University, and in 1910 Parker earned a certificate with honors from the Academy. The concept of central heating was around before Parker was born, but her design was unique because it used natural gas as its fuel instead of coal or wood that had been previously used. Her design allowed cool air to be drawn into the furnace, then conveyed through a heat exchanger that delivered warm air through ducts to individual rooms of a house. Natural gas was used for industrial heating, but apparently no one thought to make a house-sized system. Parker’s single source of heat, centrally located, devoid of chopping and carrying firewood, helped provide centralized heating to millions of homes and buildings worldwide and contributed to the development of modern HVAC systems. Her invention also has better circulation of heat versus the standard fireplace, thanks to its ductwork. To make it even better, Parker’s system also allowed for different temperatures in different parts of the house. It was also safer than having a fire going in the fireplace unattended all night.
In life, you have to take the bad with the good and Parker’s invention created new problems.
It tended to be a *teeny bit flammable, and by teeny bit, I mean very. Any number of faults could, and would, lead to fires, up to and including the heating tank exploding. Parker’s invention was further improved in 1935 by scientists who created forced convection wall heaters that use a coal furnace, electric fan, and ductwork throughout a home. It’s easy to draw a line between the central heat and thermostat in your house today to Parker’s furnace. Speaking of thermostats, do dads in nudist families tell their kids to put a sweater on instead of touching the thermostat? These are the thoughts that kept me out of the good schools. It should come as no surprise that Parker did not and does not get the credit she deserved for inventing something that is vital to our modern day life. Parker’s filing a patent was a remarkable milestone– 1919 was well before both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Mary Beatrice Davidson (known as Beatrice) was born in 1912 in Charlotte, North Carolina, into what can only be described as an inventing family. Her grandfather had invented a three-light railroad signal and her father, a preacher, invented a trouser press that fit in a suitcase and ensured your pants were perfectly smooth when you arrived at your destination. Unfortunately for the family, he turned down a $20,000 offer to buy the rights and decided to make and sell it himself. He sold a grand total of one. But the bug that had bitten him had also bitten Beatrice and her sister Mildred. Beatrice had trouble sleeping, because every morning the rusty hinge on the front door woke her up as her mother left for work. So she began to devise something that would automatically oil the hinge to keep it quiet. She was six at the time. While most little girls drew ponies, Beatrice drew new inventions. When the family moved to Washington DC when she was 12, Mary spent her spare time at the patent and trademark office. She did well in high school and was accepted to Howard University, but had to drop out for want of funding. A career as an inventor wasn’t possible either. Patents cost money, so she worked what jobs she could to support herself and her passion.
Over the course of her life, Mary invented a back scrubbed that mounted to the shower wall, an improved toilet paper holder, and a convertible top for rumble seats in cars, a back but what she’s best known for is the earliest sanitary napkin. Yes, we’re talking about menstrual products. You can handle it. We’re pretty hypocritical when it comes to blood. Wes Craven’s entire body of work and the popularity of shows like Spartacus and AHD make it abundantly clear that the general public doesn’t have a problem with the sight of blood. Maybe when I’m done recording this I’ll try to track down the name of the ad man who declared that women leak windshield washer fluid once a month.
When WWII came, she went to work for the federal government and in 1951, she married a colleague, James ‘Jabbo’ Kenner. By then it was the Fifties, not a great time to be menstruating. Tampons had been invented in the 30’s, but they sold about as quickly as double beds in the Vatican. They were thin on the ground in the areas where they even were at all, and using them was considered indecent and unladylike. The typical solution to the week-long risk of bleeding on everything you own was to pin a cloth inside your knickers. That’s why it was called ‘being on the rag.’ They were uncomfortable, unreliable, had to be laundered, and could foment bacterial growth. In 1956, having saved up enough money for the application, Beatrice submitted a patent for ‘a device for supporting catamenial pads or sanitary napkins on the body of the wearer in a highly efficient and satisfactory manner’. The patent diagram shows a belt that sits around the waist with two straps that clip at either end of a large, mattress-style pad. The main advantage was that the pad would stay in place. She later updated her invention with the addition of a ‘moisture proof napkin pocket’ – an attachment to go under the pad that made it less likely blood would spill onto clothes. This device solved a real problem and companies were interested. Until they found out she was black. “One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant,” she said. “I saw houses, cars, and everything about to come my way.” A company rep drove to Kenner’s house in Washington to meet with their prospective client. “Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped. The representative went back to New York and informed me the company was no longer interested. While women everywhere enjoyed the added freedom of the sanitary belt, at least until the stick-on pad was invented in the 70’s, Beatrice saw not a dime. But she did hold the most patents of any black woman inventor, at five.
Her sister Mildred, who was struck with multiple sclerosis at a young age, was the inspiration for Beatrice’s invention of a tray and pockets that attached to her walker. Keeping up the family tradition, Mildren also invented, in her case a children’s board game that explored family genealogy, called “Family Treedition,” which is cute as hell. Several editions would be made, including one in Braille. While neither sister aimed to get rich with their inventions, they produced their creations with an intention of improving the quality of life.
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Clues were gas mask, reefer truck, donor blood; Winner was Maria Reyes
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Don’t picture black female inventors as relics of the Victorian era or the early 20th century. Women like Shirley Jackson are innovating even now. She is, among other things, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT in any academic subject. In addition to inventions and scientific advancements, she’s conducted successful experiments in theoretical physics. Jackson was born in Washington, D.C. to parents who put a lot of stock by education and encouraged her interest in science. At Roosevelt Senior High School, Jackson attended accelerated programs in both math and science and graduated valedictorian in 1964. When Jackson began classes at MIT, she was one of fewer than twenty black students and the only one studying theoretical physics. With her bachelor’s of science degree in hand, Jackson began postdoctoral researcher into subatomic particles and conducted research at a number of physics laboratories in both the United States and Europe. Jackson would be only the second black woman in America to earn a doctorate in physics.
Dr. Jackson joined the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories. In 1978, Dr. Jackson became part of the Scattering and Low Energy Physics Research Department, moved to the Solid State and Quantum Physics Research Department, and completed a fellowship at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. You know, the place with the super-collider that could create a black hole and alter the fabric of our existence, or so people say. All I’m saying is, the world’s gotten weird since they turned it on.
That’s all well and good, but what has she done for *me, you ask. Having completed a Fellowship at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) Shirley joined Bell Laboratories, where she conducted breakthrough scientific research that led to (among other inventions) the invention of the portable fax and touch tone telephones. Dr. Jackson’s research which laid the groundwork for the invention of the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Persons younger than myself may not be sufficiently impressed by these features, so follow me into the theater of the mind. It’s the 1970’s. Disco is hot, bottoms are belled, and you’re home from school in the evening, with parents and siblings all home as well, and you’re waiting for your sweetheart to call. You gave them your phone number on a note in study hall, but they didn’t give you theirs. The phone rings. Your heart leaps into your throat and your palms get sweaty. It’s for your brother. You sternly warn him not to tie up the line as you wait for him to yell “hang up, I’ve got it” from his room. He stays on the phone for an eternity. It doesn’t ring again that night. Your crush thinks you don’t really want to talk to them and gave them the number as a prank. They tried to call, but all they got was a busy signal. Those were dark times indeed. If you had had call waiting, the phone would have beeped and your brother could have ended his call and given you yours. In theory. It depends on the brother. Anyway, call waiting and caller ID were huge leaps forward in the usefulness of phones. They must have been to carry over to cell phones unilaterally. Imagine if you actually had to answer a call to find out who it was. The horror.
Back to Dr. Jackson. In 1995, she was appointed the first chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission by then President Clinton, where she led international efforts to promote nuclear safety and helped establish the International Nuclear Regulators Association. None of us have died in a nuclear winter, so I’m marking that as another win for Jackson. She was also the first black woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, President of the Association for the Advancement of Science, on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, has received 53 honorary doctoral degrees, and since 1999 she has served as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the highest paid president of a private college. The word “pioneer” doesn’t go far enough.
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Marie Van Brittan Brown did have to go looking for a problem in need of a solution; she lived in it. In the mid-1960’s, Brown felt increasingly uneasy in her neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens in New York and the police weren’t exactly falling over themselves to help, responding slowly if at all. She worked long, late hours as a nurse and her husband was often called away at night by his job. A knock on the door could be bone-chilling. Brown wanted to know who was lurking around her home. So, in 1966, she took matters into her own hands. She created the modern home security system. Brown designed a closed-circuit security system that let her monitor visitors on a television monitor. If she saw a threat, she could use the panic button on the system to contact the police immediately. Her patent describes a series of peepholes at various heights, each with a camera behind it. A radio-controlled wireless system would transfer the image to a monitor positioned anywhere in the residence. Next to the monitor, an intercom would let the person inside talk to the person inside without needing to open the door even a sliver. Speaking of the door, a remote control would allow her to lock or unlock the door from a safe distance. Smart homes, video doorbells and other apps are a dime a dozen these days, but at the time CCTV was used only by the military, it was that caliber of technology.
Admittedly, Brown had some help from her husband, an electronics technician, though his name is listed first on the patent. The Browns’ application was impressive, drawing on existing closed-circuit television technology mainly used in military surveillance. A German engineer by the name of Walter Burch had developed camera-monitoring systems in 1942 in order to observe Nazi V-2 rocket testing from a safe distance. Brown’s security system brought “CCTV” use into the home. Three years after filing, Brown was awarded her patent on December 2, 1969. The New York Times reported the story on December 6. It listed Albert Brown’s name first, followed by “his wife, Marie,” and continued, “With the patented system, a woman alone in the house could alarm the neighborhood immediately by pressing a button, and installed in a doctor’s office it might prevent holdups by drug addicts.” Though evidence suggests the Browns did not pursue commercial opportunities, their invention inspired many versions of home security systems we use today, in single-family homes, apartment buildings, and small businesses. Beyond the simple alarm system, camera-based security systems help with everything from personal safety to improved mail delivery. By 2013, more than a dozen inventors had cited the Brown patent for their own devices. Brown later received an award from the National Scientists Committee. According to a 2016 New Scientist report, 100 million concealed closed-circuit cameras are now in operation worldwide. The Browns’ patent was specifically referenced by thirteen other inventors including some as recently as 2013.
Brown’s invention gained her well-deserved recognition, including an award from the National Scientists Committee. Strangely, despite the award, the now-ubituitous technology built on her idea, and the fact that she only passed away in 1999, no articles on Brown’s invention said anything more about her life. Like, nothing. The only other detail was that Brown was the mother of two children, one of whom, Norma Brown, went on to become a nurse and inventor.
Wanna know how much information I found about Norma? Also almost nothing! This isn’t a symptom, it’s the problem. That’s triply annoying because Norma has multiple patents, including one for an anti-rape device. Those of sensitive constitutions may wish to skip forward in 3-2-1. The patent describes “The Female Security Device is designed to defend and protect a woman against rape. It is placed withing the vaginal cavity of a female to protect and minimize physical damage caused by sexual intercourse. The device is able to retrieve evidence of rape and provide evidence for identifying a perpetrator. This is done by using a needle to to obtain a penile tissue sample and to cause penile tissue irrritation, and by obtaining a semen sample. It also has pressure sensative sensors that are connected to a microcomputer that is activated by vaginal muscle contraction indicative of penile penatration. Optionally, this sensor may be hooked up to an auditory recorder to record all sounds occurring during sexual intercourse.” I will now play soothing music to fill out the 30/60 seconds. Norma Brown also patented a combination tampon and sanitary napkin, which seems to be the latter attached to the center of the former, a device that could alert rescuers to your position and body temperature after you’ve been buried by an avalanche, a disposable adhesive beverage cover to keep stuff out of your drink, a device to add to your bra to deal with under-boob sweat, a ladder with storage compartments, a safety walker for babies, sensors for shoes that monitors the condition of the feet of people with neuropathy, a Christmas tree stand that can put out fires, and something called “interactive furniture for dieters.”
And that’s… If you have a small apartment but you need both a desk and a bed, Sarah Goode had the solution for you. Born into slavery in 1855, Goode was freed at the end of the civil war, married a carpenter and had six children, only three of whom survived to adulthood. Most of their customers were working-class people in tiny apartments. She invented a folding cabinet bed that looked like a roll-top desk and had built-in storage space. When Goode received her patent for the bed in 1885, she became the first black woman to do so. Remember… Thanks…