Norbert Rillieux and Jan Matzeliger helped revolutionize American history with their inventions, but the two men scarcely rate a footnote in the annals of Yankee ingenuity simply because they were black.
Historian Portia James is setting matters straight with an ambitious new Smithsonian Institution exhibition that celebrates the genius of America's unsung black inventors.The show, which opens Sunday, pays belated tribute to 40 inventors whose creations include a trouser-stretching device for eliminating wrinkles, a machine for producing paper bags, a press for baling cotton and a mechanical traffic signal patented in 1923.
"The exhibition says a lot about their urge to create, and how important it was for blacks to feel they were part of the growth of American technology," said James, the show's curator. "It was their assertion of black participation in the Yankee innovative spirit."
The exhibition at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum of Afro-American history and culture is titled "The Real McCoy: African American Invention and Innovation, 1619-1930."
The show's name is taken from an invention by mechanical engineer Elijah McCoy - a grease cup designed for lubricating rail locomotives while they sped down the tracks. Admiring train engineers nicknamed it "the real McCoy."
On display are the two devices created by black inventors which probably have had the greatest lasting impact on American society, said James, a native of Detroit who is the Anacostia Museum's resident historian.
One of them, developed by the New Orleans inventor Rillieux in 1830, is a vacuum evaporation machine that made refined sugar widely affordable. It later was used to produce such foods as evaporated milk and cocoa powder.
The other is Matzeliger's shoe-lasting machine, patented in 1883 by the inventor from Dutch Suriname. The machine radically changed the American shoe industry by eliminating the need for costly hand-stitching of soles to the soft leather uppers of shoes.
The museum duly recognizes one of the few prominent black inventors, George Washington Carver, with a sampling of the products he derived from peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes in his laboratory at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute.
But it also highlights such unknowns as Lewis Latimer of Queens, N.Y., the only black associate on Thomas Edison's laboratory team, who patented a carbon light bulb filament. Another is Garrett Morgan of Cleveland, who invented both the stop-go traffic signal and an industrial "safety hood" or gas mask which he used to rescue workers trapped by a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie.
James notes that African slaves introduced the banjo to American music and that Boston clergyman Cotton Mather learned of inoculation against smallpox from his North African slave, Onesimus.
The exhibition honors New York tailor Thomas Jennings, the first black believed to have received a patent, for his dry-cleaning process in 1821. On display are three wood planes designed in the 1770s by Cesar Chelor, a freed slave from Wrentham, Mass., who is believed to be the earliest black toolmaker in America.
James said her research for the exhibition took three years because of the scarcity of historical records.
Material came from old newspapers and magazines published for the black community and from an exhaustive record of pre-1900 patents awarded to black inventors that was compiled by Henry Baker, an early black U.S. patent examiner, she said.
James' research yielded the tale of Oscar J.E. Stuart, a Mississippi planter who tried to obtain a patent in 1857 for a labor-saving "double cotton scraper" invented by his slave, Ned.
Stuart argued that "the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both intellectual and manual," but the federal government granted neither man a patent.
Undaunted, Stuart began manufacturing Ned's creation and issued advertising circulars containing this testimonial from a fellow plantation owner:
"I am glad to know that your implement is the invention of a Negro slave - thus giving the lie to the Abolition cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the Negro. When did a free Negro ever invent anything?"