The ironing board, the weather radio, the fountain pen, the folding chair — all came from the mind of an African American.
Retired teacher Ethel Alexander began researching black inventors several years ago while working as the special education teacher and African American liaison at Central Park Elementary School.
She developed a presentation on the topic that she now gives to schools, churches and other interested groups.
Alexander says that the scope of the work attributed to African Americans surprised her as she dedicated herself to the task of investigating and collecting the various inventions.
“The history of America is encompassed in this, but it’s not being discussed. That’s sad because it really shouldn’t be African American History Month. It should just be history,” Alexander said.
Thomas L. Jennings became the first African American to receive a patent in 1821.
In 1834, Henry Blair’s invention of a corn-planting machine earned him the second patent issued to an African American.
Alexander said many of the early inventors were denied a formal education because of their race, and slaves had a difficult time receiving credit for their work.
“They had to fight for their patent. If a master owned a person who invented something, it was really his invention,” she said.
Perhaps the most well-known black inventor is George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery and did most of his work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Lesser known is Madam C.J. Walker, a washer-woman turned entrepreneur who became a millionaire after patenting a method to soften and smooth the hair of African Americans.
Alexander said Walker’s financial success was exceptional. Most of the inventors she researched did not become wealthy because of their ideas.
The following are other notable African Americans and their achievements:
•Sarah Boone — ironing board
•Thomas Martin — fire extinguisher
•Garrett Morgan — gas mask, automatic traffic signal
•Benjamin Banneker — almanac
•Augustus Jackson — ice cream
•Nathaniel Alexander — folding chair
•Oscar Brown — horseshoe
•John Albert Burr — lawnmower
•Alfred Benjamin — scouring pads
•Anthony Brown — severe weather detector
•Dr. Charles Drew — blood bank
•W.B. Purvis — the fountain pen