Speaking Volumes: Remarkable African-American inventors

Special to the HeraldFebruary 2, 2014 

You may not know that some everyday items we take for granted were invented or improved upon by African-Americans. If you've mailed a letter using a curbside mailbox, or visited a bank that used bulletproof Plexiglass, or waited at a traffic signal, or wore a pair of shoes, or read a book by the light of a bulb, or have a pacemaker, you've benefitted from the ingenuity of an African-American.

This month, the Manatee County Libraries are celebrating African-American History Month with a display of African-American inventors at the Central and South Manatee Libraries. In addition, you can read about those featured in the displays (and others) in "African American Inventors," by Otha Richard Sullivan; "The Real McCoy: African-American Invention and Innovation, 1619-1930," by Portia P. James; and "Black Inventors," by Nathan Aaseng. While there isn't room to mention all of the inventors that have improved our standard of living, here are a few:

Safety pioneer Garrett Augustus Morgan is considered one of the greatest American inventors. The son of a former slave, Morgan invented the Safety Hood, better known as the gas mask. Morgan had the unfortunate opportunity to use his invention when an explosion erupted in a tunnel below Lake Erie -- the mask not only saved his own life, but permitted him to lead others to safety. He also invented the automatic traffic signal, an improvement on the devices that were in use at the time. Those only had two positions: "stop" and "go." Morgan's included a caution signal, and served as a precursor to the electrified signals we use today.

The incandescent light bulb, invented by Thomas Edison, was greatly improved upon by Lewis Latimer's invention of the carbon filament. Edison's original lacked a long-burning filament -- bulbs only lasted a few days before they burned out. Latimer, a child of runaway slaves, found that a carbon filament would burn longer and brighter. This invention brought down the cost of producing lamps, a savings passed on to the consumer who could now afford to light his home or business.

Up until the late 1800s, shoes were handmade -- a labor-intensive and expensive process. Jan Earnst Matzeliger, born in South America, sailed to Philadelphia at age 19 to make a new life for himself. He became an apprentice shoemaker and noticed that hand-lasting -- connecting a shoe's upper to the sole by hand -- limited the number of shoes that could be made in a day. After six months of experimentation, he had created a crude model. It took several years, but by 1883 he perfected and patented the device that slashed the cost of production by half.

Two modern-day inventors deserve mention. Otis Boykin developed a special electronic resistor used in computers, radio and television and invented control units that operated devices, from heart pacemakers to guided missiles. Patricia Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, a laser device that creates a less painful, more precise treatment for cataracts. She has literally restored sight to the blind with her device, which was patented in 1988.

Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday. Access the at www.mymanatee.org/library. Jyna Scheeren is a reference librarian and Program Coordinator.

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