During February’s Black History Month Mister Sparky would like to recognize some of the Black inventors who shaped electrical history. Below you will read about how these men and one woman saw a need and sought to make lives safer through electrical know-how.
Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in 1848 to former slaves and went on to serve in the U.S. Navy before working in a patent firm. His draftsman skills and head for innovation led to working with Alexander Graham Bell—on the first drawings of the telephone, no less!—and next he was working with the U.S. Electric Lighting Company and the Edison Electric Light Company.
Most notably, Mr. Latimer was part of the team that invented a light bulb with a carbon filament, an improvement on the original paper filament.
We have another entire blog about the life and work of Lewis Howard Latimer who worked with Thomas Edison. Click here to read about his important contribution to the light bulb and more.
While his invention was not directly related to electricity like Mr. Latimer, Alexander Miles was a barber turned inventor that made elevator doors significantly safer. Mr. Miles is credited with inventing automatically closing and opening elevator doors in 1887.
Born in Ohio in 1838, Mr. Miles moved to Wisconsin in early adulthood and became a barber. He moved to Minnesota, married and started a family, and was able to use his income from cutting hair and shaving beards to open a real estate office. He became the first Black member of the Chamber of Commerce in Duluth.
In 1884, he built a three-story brownstone in an area that became known as Miles Block, according to MIT. It was during elevator rides in his own buildings that he became aware of the dangers of the manual elevator doors that left passengers at high risk for a fall when the elevator shaft door was left open.
According to Lemelson-MIT: “Miles was determined to solve this problem. He attached a flexible belt to the elevator cage, which touched drums positioned along the elevator shaft, directly above and below the floors. His invention allowed elevator shaft doors to operate at the correct times. The elevator doors were automated through a series of levers and rollers. Alexander Miles was granted a patent for his invention on October 11, 1887 (U.S. Patent 371,207).”
Miles then moved to Chicago and started a life insurance company for Black people who could otherwise not get coverage.
Alexander Miles was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.
Garrett Morgan is best remembered for inventing the gas mask (then called a safety hood, the predecessor to the gas masks we know today), which has literally been a lifesaver, but he is also heralded for coming up with the yellow or yield light on traffic signals—which has also been credited with saving lives.
Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky in 1877, the son of a former slave. When he was 14, he left home for Cincinnati where he worked as a handyman. When he moved to Cleveland in 1895, he built his reputation as a sewing machine repairman. This experience sparked his first invention—a belt fastener for sewing machines. He opened is own sewing machine repair shop in 1907 and then a tailoring shop. Mr. Morgan, dubbed “the Black Edison” at the time, was consistently being inspired by one invention to create another. He primarily lived in Cleveland where he became a prominent businessman and inventor.
Scientific American wrote a thorough article about Mr. Morgan’s accomplishments, including that of the modern traffic light: “Before Morgan, traffic signals only had two positions: stop and go. “My grandfather’s great improvement,” Sandra says, “was the ‘all hold’—what is now the amber light.” Morgan patented the three-position traffic signal in 1923 and soon sold the idea to General Electric for $40,000 (the equivalent of about $610,000 today).” (Sandra is his granddaughter.)
Mr. Morgan passed away in 1963 in Cleveland. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.
Frederick McKinley Jones
Like many of these inventors, Frederick McKinley Jones had several inventions, thanks to his experience with mechanics and electronics. He is best known for designing an automatic truck refrigeration unit that allowed perishable foods to be safely transported while staying cool.
Born in 1893 in Kentucky, Mr. Jones had a difficult start in life with very limited formal education. During WWI, Mr. Jones was promoted in the U.S. Army to the rank of sergeant and electrician, and during this time he performed wiring so his camp had electricity. After the war, he returned home to Minnesota and built a transmitter for his town’s first radio station.
He is also credited, according to Lemelson MIT, with inventing “the first process that enabled movie projectors to play back recorded sound, making “talking pictures” possible.”
It was during WWII that his inventiveness moved on to saving lives, when his now portable refrigeration units were used to store blood in military camps.
In his lifetime, Mr. Jones earned 61 patents! He died in 1961 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007, where he was recognized as a “Visionary Veteran.”
Marie Van Brittan Brown
Marie Van Brittan Brown was born in Queens in 1922 and worked as a nurse. She is known for inventing the first modern home security system, along with her husband, Albert Brown, an electronics technician.
The couple worked late and irregular hours at their respective jobs and had concerns about coming home late at night.
Lemelson-MIT shares the story: “In 1966, Brown, along with the assistance of her husband, invented a security system which consisted of four peepholes, a sliding camera, television monitors, and two-way microphones. These items created a closed-circuit television system for surveillance also known as CCTV. With multiple peepholes, the sliding camera was able to capture images of people who were different heights. The two-way microphones allowed Brown to communicate with the person outside. She also had a remote that would allow her to unlock the door at a safer distance. Lastly, she had an emergency button that would send an alarm to police or security.”
You can see a detailed illustration of the system here.
Not only was her work patented, but she received an award from the National Scientists Committee. She passed away in 1999 but her pioneering work lives on in Smart Home features and security systems today.