by Sekou | Feb 22, 2021 | Black Innovators, Features
I don’t think that I’m alone in the fact that a broken elevator is TERRIFYING. Like, seriously, have any of you ever been on a shaky ass elevator?? You feel like it’s about to be ALL over. This is with elevators that have been made relatively recently! Did you know that elevators had to be manned by the passengers at first? Yep, you would have to open the door, close the door, and make sure the door to the elevator shaft was closed as well. If that didn’t happen, other passengers… let’s just say that they would be going for a pretty long fall. This isn’t the safest way to go up and down buildings, so there was a man who decided to make automatic doors. A Black man, by the name of Alexander Miles.
To keep it real, there is not a lot on the youth of Alexander Miles. He was born in 1838, and there has been some disputes on where he was born. Some say Ohio, while others say Duluth, Minnesota; where he was living while coming up with the invention. His parents were named Michael Miles and Mary Pompy.
In the 1860s, Miles moved to Wisconsin and worked as a barber where he started experimenting with creating hair products. After moving back to Minnesota in 1870, he met his wife, a white woman by the name of Candace J. Dunlap. They had a daughter named Grace in 1879, and relocated back to Duluth.
Miles and his wife found work, as Miles ran a barbershop and Candace became a dressmaker. Miles’ barbershop was in the four-story St. Louis Hotel, and he purchased a real estate office. Let’s acknowledge this: it is around 1880, and this man purchased a real estate office. That is excellent. Even though it was in the north, I will ALWAYS praise Black people achieving big things like that in the 19th century. As time passed, Miles made more achievements. He became the first Black member of Duluth’s Chamber of Commerce, and he even built a three-story brownstone building that is known as Miles Block. With a three-story building, you know what you might want? Elevators.
The Big Invention.
Remember when I told you that closing the door to the elevator shaft was important? Well, Miles felt the exact same way, as he was on one with his daughter and that shaft door was open. Almost immediately after, Miles started drafting up blueprints for automatic elevator doors.
Now, someone else had the patent for elevators first (John W. Meaker), but Miles still applied for a patent. Miles’ elevator was going to have those automatic doors by attaching a flexible belt to the cage of the elevator. Once it came in contact with the drums that were above and below the floors, the elevator shaft doors were able to operate at appropriate times. Through some levers and rollers, the elevator doors would open and close on their own. Miles’ model is still used in modern designs of elevators, and all most of us have ever known are automatic doors in and on elevators.
Final Days and Impact.
Miles and his family moved to Chicago around 1900, where he created an insurance agency. The agency’s goal was to eliminate the discriminatory treatment of blacks. “Insurance companies persist in holding out discriminative rates to these colored people..” stated by Miles. Near the end of his life, Miles was believed to be the “wealthiest colored man in the Northwest.” After 1905, Miles died, but his legacy was still recognized as he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.
Alexander Miles is an innovator that you don’t hear about too often. For a man who changed something that we use so frequently, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first time you’ve heard of him! Hopefully, I can do him justice by showing you how he changed the elevator so we wouldn’t have to stress (or die) closing the doors manually. Alexander Miles, your legacy will not be forgotten!
Photo creds: Duluth Public Library
BHA. (2021). Alexander Miles: African American Inventors. Retrieved from My Black History: http://www.myblackhistory.net/Alexander_Miles.htm
National Inventors Hall of Fame. (2021). NIHF Inductee Alexander Miles. Retrieved from National Inventors Hall of Fame: https://www.invent.org/inductees/alexander-miles
Scholastic Teacher’s Activity Guide. (2021). Alexander Miles | Famous African American Inventors. Retrieved from Scholastic Teacher’s Activity Guide: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/inventors/miles.htm
White, D. (2018, January 4). Alexander Miles (1838-1918). Retrieved from Black Past: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/miles-alexander-1838-1918/
by Sekou | Aug 3, 2020 | Black Innovators, Features
Let’s talk about how crucial irons are. Seriously, have you ever left your crib with wrinkled clothes? You are an easy target to get roasted! With an iron, you can save yourself from getting joaned on into oblivion. But do you know what comes in handy with an iron? You guessed it, an ironing board! Ironing boards truly make ironing easier, otherwise you be ironing on an uneven couch. And of course, this innovation was made by none other than a Black woman. Let me tell you about Sarah Boone.
Born Sarah Marshall in North Carolina in 1832, Sarah was unfortunately born into slavery. However, she did obtain her freedom. Some say that it was due to her husband James Boone, who was a free man. They married in 1847 and had 8 children together. Right before the Civil War, Boone and her family migrated to New Haven, Connecticut using a network tied to the Underground Railroad. When they settled into a Black neighborhood near Dixwell Avenue, it was here where Mrs. Boone had her first career.
Sarah Boone first worked as a dressmaker, while her husband worked as a bricklayer up until his death in the 1870s. However, Sarah Boone made enough money to own her own house. I don’t think y’all understand how amazing this is. Not only is this a woman in the 1800s, but a Black woman in the 1800s, owning her own house. Simply incredible. What is also incredible is that she took steps to learn to read and write. Back then, it was illegal for a Black person to read or write, so she took the initiative to learn in her late 40s. Sources say that it could have been through her membership at Dixie Congregational Church. After this, Boone went on to create her famous invention: the improved ironing board.
Boone was facing touch competition in the dressmaking game, and was trying to find a way for her dresses to be more eye-catching to customers. In the early 1890s, she experimented with the ironing board. See at this time, dressmakers were usually ironing their clothes on a wooden plank that was placed across two chairs. This worked for wide skirts, but for tight material, this didn’t work as well. Boone’s idea? To create a curved and narrow board that could slip into sleeves and allow for clothes to be moved without getting wrinkled. This was padded, which eliminated impressions that would come from a wooden board, as well as being made into a collapsible piece to store it better. In 1891, Boone applied for a patent for her improved ironing board, and was awarded U.S. Patent No. 473,653 a year later. Sarah Boone is one of the first Black women to earn a patent, absolutely incredible.
On October 29, 1904, Sarah Boone died from Bright’s disease. She was buried with her mother and husband in the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven. The roughest part about being an inventor back in this time period is the fact that you don’t really get to benefit off of your products. There were a couple factors in this: one is the fact that there were only 12 years between the patent and her death, and two, she was a Black woman in the 1800s, which meant there was no respect or recognition. Today, I am here to rectify that. Sarah Boone, thank you for your contribution, your legacy will not be forgotten. MT Out!
Biography.com Editors. Sarah Boone Biography. 2 April 2014. 2 August 2020.
Photo Creds: YouTube
by Sekou | Jul 27, 2020 | Black Innovators, Features
Do you have a phone? Do you make calls on it, especially now in these times just to hear someone’s voice? Do you know someone who has a hearing aid so they can hear better? Do you remember tape recorders? Do you know what these all have in common? Microphones! All of these devices use microphones so we can hear ourselves and so others can hear us. These microphones used are called electret microphones, founded by a Black Innovator, named James. E West.
Born on February 10, 1931, much like other innovators who enjoyed building things, James E. West also enjoyed tearing things down. There is a method though. It was stated by West, “If I had a screwdriver and pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger… I had this need to know what was inside.” It’s important to note that while building things is important, taking things apart is just as important, as it is helpful to know what makes things work. West really started to truly love the concept of electricity after an accident with a radio that he was deconstructing. He knew that he wanted to pursue science academically, much to the chagrin of his parents. See, James E. West made this decision in the late 30s/early 40s in the South, back when Jim Crow laws were in place. His parents believed that these laws and racism would hinder his road to becoming a scientist and they wanted him to become a physician instead. However, Mr. West is not one to be deterred from his path.
In 1953, West attended Temple University to study physics and started working as an intern for the Acoustic Research Department at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. After receiving his bachelor’s 4 years later, Bell Laboratories hired West as an acoustical scientist at a full-time capacity. It was here where West started to develop the electret microphone.
While working at Bell in 1960, West partnered with Gerhard M. Sessler, a fellow scientist, in order to develop a microphone that was inexpensive, sensitive, and compact. This electret transducer-reliant product took two years to finish development on, and four years after that point, the electret microphone was in mass production. Here’s the sheer importance of it and how much it is used: the electret microphone, the invention by West and Sessler, became the industry standard. Today, 90% of all contemporary microphones, ones in telephones, camcorders, hearing aids and more, use their technology. This is amazing how much we use this device in our everyday lives, and it’s sad that plenty of us haven’t heard about James E. West before.
About 30 years later in 1997, West was appointed president-elect of the Acoustical Society of America. He then joined the National Academy of Engineering a year later. A year after that, West and Sessler were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Not only was James E. West innovative in his inventions, he was also innovative in recruitment of the STEM field. He worked with initiatives that entreated women and students of color to explore and pursue careers in the STEM field.
In 2001, after over 40 years with Bell, James E. West retired. Usually, after retirement, you don’t really ask, “What’s next?” Well, James E. West asked himself that, and decided to become a research professor. Among all the universities with whom he had intrviews, James E. West chose Johns Hopkins, specifically their Whiting School of Engineering.
This isn’t it with James E. West. This man has developed more than 250 patents on microphones and polymer-foil electrets. He has received plenty of accolades and honors. He also was known as a prolific writer, authoring and contributing to numerous scientific papers and books. James E. West’s discoveries are relatively recent, as this was about 50 years back. That is not a very long time, and it’s unfortunate that more people don’t know about him, or haven’t learned about him. Well, I’m here to do my part. Thank you, James E. West for your contribution and work, your legacy will not be forgotten. MT Out!
Biography.com Editors. James E West Biography. 2 April 2014. 23 July 2020.
Photo creds: National Inventors Hall of Fame
by Sekou | Jul 13, 2020 | Black Innovators, Features
Let’s talk about neighborhoods. Now, there are plenty different types of neighborhoods. We have some that are big, some that are small, some that don’t have an official neighborhood name but are better communities than the gated communities, we have so many! One of the most important things in a neighborhood is safety. No matter how safe you think your neighborhood is, most houses have some type of security system. These security systems help us know when someone is trying to break in, when someone is at our doorstep, or even have facial recognition. Do you know how security systems got started, though? The reason was for safety, and the innovation was by none other than a Black woman. Let’s talk about Marie Van Brittan Brown.
Born October 22nd, 1922, in Queens, New York, not much is known about her early life, but she was a nurse and had two children. One of which became an inventor. Living in Queens at this time, her husband was an electronics technician by the name of Albert Brown. Their work hours weren’t the standard hours that you might be thinking of, and the crime rates were high in Queens. When the police were called, they took their sweet time and they were still of little help. Brittan Brown decided to take her safety into her own hands, In comes the security system.
Her security system was the blueprint for the features we have in modern security systems. For example, her system had peepholes, a camera, monitors, and a two-way microphone. This was the foundation for the two-way communication and surveillance features we have today. Lastly, there was an alarm button that could be pressed to contact the police. Three peepholes were on the front door for different height levels. Top was for tall, bottom was for kids, and middle was for average. On the other side of the door there was a camera attached that had the ability to slide up and down and allow the person to see through each peephole. The camera would pick images up that were transported to the monitor wirelessly, and that monitor could be anywhere in the house so you could see who was at the door. (Rebecca Hill, 2016).
Remember me talking about that two-way communication system? Well, Brown made a component that allowed her to speak to the person outside. With the push of a button, Brown could notify the authorities if she thought the person was an intruder. If not, then she could unlock the door with a remote. Can we just talk about how innovative this is? I mean, the intricacies of this is so amazing, especially for the time period! On December 2nd, 1969, the application for the “Home Security System Utilizing Television Surveillance” patent was approved after 3 years. This security system gained Brown an award from the National Scientists Committee, as well as an interview with The New York Times 4 days after the patent was approved.
This invention was truly a blueprint for alarm triggers, monitoring systems, instant messages to authority and so much more. This invention started ADT and Ring, and is still used today in small businesses, apartments, small offices, and even in single-family homes. The Browns’ patent is still referenced by other inventors.
The Black mind is so beautiful. We have something we feel as a problem, and we get right to work trying to fix our problem. Marie Van Brittan Brown, not just a Black person, but a Black woman, saw a problem and decided to invent something to make it better. She made something so beautifully intricate that laid the entire foundation for what we use to keep us safe today. And we still use it! That’s how good it is, and that’s how great Marie Van Brittan Brown is. Thank you, Marie Van Brittan Brown for your innovation, you will not be forgotten. MT Out!
Hill, R. (2016, April 11) Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/brown-marie-van-brittan-1922-1999/
Photo Creds: Wikimedia
by Sekou | Jun 22, 2020 | Black Innovators, Features
It’s finally summertime! You know what that means! Summer cookouts, listening to “Summertime” from DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince on repeat, and kids playing with water guns outside. Oh yes, water guns are all the rage during the summer, kids squirting each other with small water pistols, and maybe with some cool looking revolver type deals! But the kid that everyone feared? The kid who could get 5 kids at the same time? That was the kid with the Super Soaker. We have all heard of the Super Soaker, and how much fun it made water fights. They are so much fun that adults still use them! Did you know that the creator of the Super Soaker was in the Air Force? Did you know he worked at NASA? Did you know he was Black? Well, allow me to introduce you to Dr. Lonnie Johnson.
Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1949, Dr. Johnson has always loved inventing and experimenting with things. We’re talking about a kid who took apart dolls just so he could see the mechanics of the eyes. We’re talking about a kid who almost set his house on fire because he was making rocket fuel. A kid who made a go-cart out of a lawnmower engine and scraps from a junkyard. Since he was young, he was destined for greatness.
Dr. Johnson attended Williamson High School, an all-Black high school in Mobile, Alabama. Because of his superhuman intelligence, his buddies nicknamed him “The Professor”. In 1968, the Professor showed how smart he was by representing his school at a 1968 science fair sponsored by JETS (Junior Engineering Technical Society) that took place at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Here, the Professor debuted the “Linex”: a compressed-air-powered robot. Needless to say, The Professor won first prize, while also being the only Black participant in 1968! He was so good that no one could play politics to have him lose, he was the easiest choice to win first prize!
After high school, Dr. Johnson attended Tuskegee University on a math scholarship. He earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 and received his masters degree in nuclear engineering 2 years later from the same school. After this, he worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and with the U.S. Air Force, helping them develop their stealth bomber program. This man is otherworldly in how intelligent he is.
After this in 1979, Dr. Johnson went to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and worked on the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn, both as a systems engineer. He returned to the Air Force 3 years later, staying there until 1987 and working for himself after that point. He was comfortable with this after his discovery in ’82. In 1982, he decided to start making a prototype of something: the first Super Soaker.
While working in the Air Force, the creative mind never stopped for Dr. Johnson. He worked on his own inventions in his spare time. One of his projects included trying to make an environmentally friendly heat pump that used water, as opposed to Freon. He attached nozzles to the bathroom sink and when he opened the nozzles a powerful stream of water shot out. Dr. Johnson then thought, “This would be a pretty cool water gun”.
In 1989, after trying to perfect it and sell it, he sold his creation to the Larami Corportation, which is a subsidiary of Hasbro. As the “Power Drencher”, it sold well through word of mouth, but after being sold to a major corporation and changing the name to the popular “Super Soaker”, it sold like CRAZY. So much so that in 1991, the Super Soaker topped $200 million in sales. Keep in mind, this is two years after being sold to the Larami Corportation. Guess what? It doesn’t stop here!
In 1996, Dr. Johnson thought about replacing the water of the Super Soaker with a projectile. He received a patent for “Pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like.” With this technology, he is indirectly responsible for Nerf guns, which also have sold millions. He also created the Johsnon Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC), a device that can convert heat into electricity with far more efficiency than existing methods. This was named as one of the top 10 world changing inventions by Popular Mechanics in 2008.
Dr. Lonnie Johnson is more than an inventor and innovator. He is a complete genius! This man was making rocket fuel as a kid, made a whole robot in high school, developed the Air Force’s stealth bomber program, worked at NASA, and made a device that rivaled coal, petroleum, and natural gas in its efficiency. These are insane things that he has created, and to think that the Super Soaker was basically made on accident is something that’s even more mind-blowing! Dr. Johnson has invented an unbelievable amount since he was a child, and has invented so much that so many of us weren’t aware about! The best inventions and ideas tend to come when you are dreaming about something else, and I think that I speak for all of our inner children that we are thankful and appreciative that Dr. Johnson’s heat pump squirted out a stream of water. Why? Because without that, we wouldn’t have had the innovative Super Soaker, and possibly wouldn’t have Nerf guns either! Thank you, Dr. Lonnie Johnson, we will make sure that your name is not forgotten. MT Out!