Science and Technology: African Inventors in the Americas

We learn very little about inventors of African descent. The inventors highlighted here do not represent an exhaustive list. It includes some of the early inventors in the Americas, whether  independent, corporate or government inventors. Notably, the drive to make the food production process  more efficient after the abolition of slavery in the Americas was not lost on many of these innovators.  

Photo: Thomas L. Jennings
Thomas L. Jennings was the first African to receive a patent in the United States of America. On March 3, 1821 he secured US Patent 3306x for discovering a process called dry-scouring. Jennings lived in New York as a free man. He owned and operated tailoring and clothing cleaners business. Dry-scouring is a process he developed for cleaning clothing through a dry process instead of a wet process. Yes,  the successful dry-cleaners can thank Mr. Jennings for his early innovation published to the world in 1821. Jennings used the profits secured from his patent to free members of his family who were still under slavery systems in some of the U.S. Jennings also used his wealth as a business man and inventor to financially support the abolition movement that was growing in many areas throughout the U.S. during his time. 

Photo of inventor Jan Ernst Matzeliger
(b. 9/15/1852 – d. 8/24/1889)
Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Suriname (then Dutch Guyana). Matzeliger's mother was an Afrian born woman  into the Dutch slave society of Dutch Guyana. His father was a wealthy Dutch engineer.  Matzeliger came to the United States and settled into the New England region where he developed the shoe-lasting machine invention that assembled the upper shoe to the sole, receiving U.S. Patent No. 459,899 on September 22, 1891 -- an innovation that greatly increased efficiency in the shoe production process. Additional U.S. patents received by Matzeliger include the following: 274,207, 3/20/1883, Automatic method for lasting shoe; 421,954, 2/25/1890, Nailing machine; 423,937, 3/25/1890, Tack separating and distributing mechanism; 415,726, 11/26/1899, Mechanism for distributing tacks, nails, etc.

Photo: Norbert Rillieux
(b. 3/17/1806 - d. 10/8/1894)
Norbert Rillieux was born into privilege in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of a wealthy Creole mother and a white father who was an engineer. Rillieux and his brother were educated in France. By 1830, Rillieux was teaching applied mechanics at the École Centrale in Paris. When Rillieux returned to Louisiana, there was a growing demand to replace the dangerous "Jamaica Train" sugar manufacturing process. Rillieux developed a steam-driven process for making the sweet grainy substance. His U.S. patents include the following:

* 3,237, 8/26/1843, Improvement in sugar works
* 4,879, 12/10/1846, Sugar processing evaporator

Shelby J. Davidson was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1868 and graduated from Howard University and would read law and become admitted into the DC bar and Kentucky bar. Davidson became a government inventor and worked with the United States Treasury Department where he invented adding machine automations that increased the postal division's efficiency. Davidson received U.S. Patent No. 884,721 on April 14, 1908 for what is described as a paper-rewind mechanism for adding machines. In 1912, Davidson resigned with the government amid disputes arising from Davidson's rights to the adding machine. He practiced law and entered into the real estate market.

Alexander P. Ashbourne received patent no. 170,460 for designing a unique biscuit cutter on November 30, 1875. Ashbourne's cookie cutter innovated on the variety of shapes available for biscuits, cakes or cookies. The invention involved a plate, roller and springs system whereby the cutters presses down on the dough or batter into optional shapes. Ashbourne also obtained U.S. patents for various agricultural related patents described below:
    * 163,962 (1875), Process for preparing coconut for domestic use; 194,287 (1877), Process of treating coconut; 230,518 (1880), Refining coconut oil
Drawing of Inventor Granville T. Woods
(b. 4/23/1856 - d. 1/30/1910)

Granville T. Woods focused his innovation in the area of railway electronic communication systems. On June 3, 1884, Woods received his first patent. This was for an improved steam-boiler furnace, U.S. Patent No. 299,894. Subsequently, Alexander Graham Bell's company would purchase the rights to his telegraphony patent, a device that allowed a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. The relationship with the Bell company enabled Woods to become a full-time inventor. Woods would go on to receive a patent for an automatic air brake, which is used to slow and stop trains. 

John Standard obtained U.S. Patent No. 455,891. Born July 1891, John Standard was born in New Jersey. He improved on the original icebox by putting cold air-ducts or holds in special areas to help the air circulate within the icebox in order to keep foods fresher. His invention also provided a special place to keep the drinking water and other drinks separate from the food. This avoided liquids picking up the flavors and smells of other foods. 

Photo of inventor Lewis H. Latimer
(b. 9/4/1848 - d. 12/11/1928)
As a teenager, Lewis H. Latimer received an opportunity to work for the Boston patent firm Crosby, Halstead & Gould. He worked his way up to chief patent drawing draftsman where he began drafting for Alexander Graham Bell's patent application for the telephone. In 1874, Latimer secured his first patent for an "improvement in water-closet for railroad-cars". He moved from Boston area to Connecticut where he joined the United States Electric Lighting Company, working on electric lighting innovations while he worked on his owned lamp designs. He would later join Thomas Edison's company, which would become General Electric, and become a member of the legal department.

On February 17, 1891, Albert C. Richardson received Patent 446,470 for his  innovations in the food production, particularly improved churning processes. The American churn was traditionally a wooden appliance for making butter from cream skimmed from law milk. It was shaped like a barrel with a long wooden stick coming through a hole in the center top. Richardson's improvements included installing glass panels on both sides of the churn to see the butter. This helped preps determine whether it was ready. He also included a plate inside the churn for the butter to be placed for easier removal. Richardson's U.S. patents include the following:
  • 255,022, 3/14/1882, Hame fastener
  • 446,470, 2/17/1891, Churn
  • 529,311, 11/13/1894, Casket-lowering device
  • 620,362, 2/28/1899, Insect destroyer
  • 638,811, 12/12/1899, Bottle
Judy W. Reed 1884 patent for dough kneading 
Judy W. Reed received U.S. Patent No. 305,474, received September 23, 1884, for a hand-operated dough kneader and roller that allowed for improved mixing that was more evenly distributed when processed through the rollers with corrugated slates. Little is written about Reed's life, but she has garnered the title of being the first African-American woman to receive a U.S. patent.

Joseph Lee received U.S. Patent No. 524,042 for a kneading machine invention on August 7, 1894. Lee's time saving invention mixed and kneaded the dough and also replaced the need to hand roll dough.

Robert P. Scott invented the corn silker and obtained U.S. Patent No. 524,223 on August 7, 1894. Corn silk is the silk-like thread fibers on the inside of the green husks removed from corn-on-the-cob. Removing corn silk proved both time consuming and difficult. The R.P. Scott Corn Silker helped to make this process faster and more efficient. 

Inventor Garrett A. Morgan, Sr.
Garrett A. Morgan, Sr. filed his patent application in 1922 and obtained U.S. Patent No. 1,475,024 on Nov. 20 1923 for an electrical traffic signal to be used at street intersections as a tool to control for the flow of safe traffic from automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians. In 1912, Morgan also obtained U.S. Patent No. 109,936 for a breathing device to be used to stop the flow of injurious gases to persons, later called the gas mask.

John T. White obtained U.S. Patent No. 572,849 on December 8, 1896 for the first commercial lemon squeezer.White's invention made it easier to squeeze all of the juice out of a lemon. It also separated the seeds and pulp from the juice, and prevented squirting. 

African-American inventor: Lloyd Ray dustpan 
Lloyd P. Ray received U.S. Patent No. 587,607 on August 3, 1897 for a new and useful improvement in dust pans. Ray's device included a metal collection plate that trash could be swept into, attached to a short wooden handle. 

Alfred L. Cralle received U.S. Patent No. 576,395 on February 2, 1897 for an ice cream mold and ice cream scooper (disher). This made serving ice cream in perfect round portions to fit on cones. 
Elbert R. Robinson received U.S. Patent Nos. 505,370, September 19, 1893, electric railway trolley and 594,286, November 23, 1897, casting composite or other car wheels.

FURTHER RESOURCES: Ohio State University's Knowledge Bank: African American Patent Holders Database


  1. All of this information should be mandatory in all school systems. Let us give praise where it is due!

  2. It should be mandatory for all schools to institute this their curriculum. Our children, and aldults should know the greatness of all men and women! Give credit where credit is due!

  3. Very insightful history. We must not forget our past!

  4. Interesting information. I never knew all these achievement of our forefathers and leaders.
    I am proud of them.

  5. The photo of Thomas Jennings is not him. Some will say it is Jamaican National Hero Paul Bogle, but Rev. Service of Portland, Jamaica is more likely than either more famous contender. Also, you show him wearing a lady's coat, which is somewhat undignified for either of the three.


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