Born in October of 1854 in Louisiana, Anna invented a kitchen tool she called a pastry fork.
The system of patents for inventions was not easy for African Americans at the time. Enslaved people were not considered people, they were not US citizens, and the rights of the US constitution did not apply to them. Consider the Dred Scott Decision where enslaved Scott unsuccessfully sued for him and his family’s freedom (they were eventually freed on May 26, 1857). This made it difficult for even free blacks to secure patents on their inventions, making it easy for their work to be stolen or attributed to someone else.
Of all the inventions by African Americans, we can just about imagine how much more this contribution would be if full credit had been given to those who were not considered worthy to receive it. Consider the following inventions:
The Artificial Heart Pacemaker Control Unit (Otis Boykin )
The Closed Circuit Television Security (leading to the home security system) Marie Van Brittan Brown
The Modern Home-Video Gaming Console (Gerald A. Lawson)
We can go on and on.
Anna’s story is special because she was one of few blacks to receive a patent for her invention of the pastry fork.*
The Pastry Fork was an older version of the wisp and other electronic mixers today as it automatically mixed without manual effort. This tool had many uses, including beating eggs, thickening foods, making butter, mashing potatoes, making salad dressings, and most pastry dough, which was difficult on the hands and wrists.
Anna filed an application for a patent of her Pastry Fork in July of 1891 and was awarded the patent on March 1, 1892.
*Martha Jones was the first black woman to obtain a US Patent.
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Some of the most common forms of protection for women during their cycles were grass, rabbit skins, sponges, rags, menstrual aprons, homemade knitted pads, or other absorbents. Usually, women used some form of cloth back in the day. These cloths are why “she’s on the rag” is a popular expression used to refer to menstruating women.
While she did not invent the modern version of the Maxi Pad, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner developed the sanitary belt, one of the first versions of the modern-day pad.
Mary was born in Monroe, North Carolina, on May 17, 1912, and came from a family of inventors. Her sister invented a children’s board game that explored family ties called “Family Treedition.” Mary’s father, Sidney Davidson, patented a pants presser in 1914. According to historian and former U.S. Patent Examiner Patricia Sluby, a maternal grandfather of the daughters was of German and Irish descent who invented a tricolor train light. It’s safe to say that developing things was in Mary’s blood, pun intended.
The sanitary belt was a belt used to hold pads in place before designing self-adhesive maxi pads.
Mary invented the sanitary belt with a moisture-proof napkin pocket, but the company that showed interest in the pads rejected the invention because Mary was a black woman. For this, the sanitary belt didn’t become widespread until 1956, thirty years after its design. Learning this has taught me the power of patience and how everything comes to be in its time. It may have seemed like a lifetime to Mary, but eventually, her invention saw the light of day. Mary received five patents for her invention between 1956 and 1987.
While mostly known for her invention of the sanitary belt, Mary had other groundbreaking designs like the toilet paper holder, and the mounted back scrubber and washer for showers. Mary has been an entrepreneur from the start, operating her own floral business in Washington, D.C., when she was not inventing things.
Adhesive Maxi Pads (a sticky side that stuck to the lining of a woman’s panties) were invented in the 1970s, so the sanitary belt did not last very long. But without the belt, someone would not have thought to make things easier by eliminating the belt and just going with the napkin.
If you are a young woman like me and have never used the belt, you can Google Sanitary Napkins (or talk to your mom or grandmother), and learn that the strap was uncomfortable and inconvenient. While tampons existed, using them for younger women was considered sexually improper. (A pretty good article to study up on the evolution of pads can be found HERE.)
Life happens in stages, and good things come to be because someone took a risk on something others may not have found useful. Mary’s invention helped women who didn’t want to use tampons to get by and paved the way for all of the pads currently on the market.
There’s a funny story behind this post. My stomach was growling and I thought “Hmmm, what if there was a device where you could hook up to your body parts and see what’s going on in there??” Like, say your stomach hurts or you’re hungry or your leg is in pain, you could hook up to some technology screen type deal and see what is causing those changes. OK, you may already know but I mean in a way where you could see it .(medical genuis smarty pants lol) You can go to the doctor and already know what needs to be done. Anywho, that’s when I thought it would be fun to look at some inventors / inventions that we may not have known about.
The Pencil Sharpener
Also, known as The Love Sharpener, The Pencil Sharpener was patented by a black man named John Lee Love. John did not invent the pencil sharpener* but what he did invent would carry on to the same pencil sharpeners we use today. A carpenter in Fall River, Massachusetts, John invented several devices and in 1897, he patented a portable pencil sharpener known as the “Love Sharpener.” (*The first ever pencil sharpener was patented in France by mathematician Bernard Lassimone in 1828. A decade later another Frenchman, Therry des Estwaux, designed a conical-shaped device that, when a pencil was inserted and twisted, all sides of the pencil were whittled away at once and make the sharpening process much quicker.).
Heating Furnace — Ventilation System
Alice H. Parker, an African-American woman from Morristown, NJ developed, in 1919, an early concept of the modern home heating system. Her system gave birth to the thermostat and the forced air furnaces in most homes today, replacing what was then the most common method for heating – cutting and burning wood in fireplaces or stoves. Parker’s invention would be better known today as Central Heating.
What would you know, a black man invented the mailbox. Known as The Street Letter box back then, Philip Downing designed a metal box with four legs which he patented on October 27, 1891. He called his device a street letter box and it is the predecessor of today’s mailbox. (A fellow blogger wrote a post about Downing awhile back. Check it out here!)
The Sanitary Belt, The Walker, The Toilet Tissue Holder
Before pads and tampons menstrual huts were common where women would be separated from communities while on their cycle (known biblically as a time of uncleanliness). Later women began using cloth or rags which is where the term “she’s on the rag” came from. Common forms of protection rabbit skins, rags, menstrual aprons (aprons??) homemade knitted pads and eventually, the sanitary belt. I heard of the sanitary belt from my mom, otherwise I would not have a clue what this is. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, a black woman, had some pretty cool inventions, the Sanitary Belt being one of them. She also invented the walker and toilet tissue holder. Pretty neat. (Ladies, you can learn more about the evolution of the pad HERE.)
Thomas Elkins, a black man, invented a lot of things (to include an improved refrigerator). Known then as a Chamber Commode, the modern toilet was patented by Thomas Elkins on January 9, 1872. Elkins’ commode was a combination bureau, mirror, book-rack, washstand, table, easy chair, and chamber stool. (The flush toilet goes back to the 1500s but the idea failed to catch on until later).
The First “Perm”
Did you know that Perm is short for Permanent? The first concept of the perm was invented by a black woman named Marjorie Joyner. The granddaughter of slave owner and slave, Marjorie developed an invention called “The Permanent Waving Machine” which permed or straightened hair by wrapping it in rods. Later, a black man named Garret Morgan (inventor of the Traffic Signal and Gas Mask) invented our modern version of the perm by accident. In his tailor shop, Garrett was thinking of a solution he could use to polish the needles to a high gloss and stop them from scorching clothes. When Morgan doctored this liquid, he decided to test the effects of the liquid on dog’s hair and saw how the texture had smooth out. Later trying this on human hair, the relaxer was born. Delighted with his success, Morgan coined his hair division the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. This Company was also responsible for the black hair oil dye and the curved tooth iron comb (to be used as a hot comb.)
Charles R. Drew was an African-American surgeon who pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. Ironically, he died due to an accident that blocked blood flow to his heart (there’s a myth that he died at an all-white hospital among whites who refused to operate on him but this story cannot be verified. According to my research, Drew was treated at Alamance General Hospital, a facilities-poor “White” hospital. The White doctors at Alamance began work immediately but Drew’s injuries were so severe and his loss of blood so great that he could not be saved. It is possible that due his prominence he was treated better than most blacks were during the time but further research / insight is needed.)
Bessie Blount was a physical therapist who served during WWII. She invented an electrically driven feeding tube device that enabled wounded soldiers to consume a mouthful of food when biting down on a tube. At the time, it was hard to get a patent and she donated this invention to France. In 1951, she received a patent for a modified version from the U.S. called the portable receptacle holder, smaller tube that could be worn around the neck. However, many of Blount’s inventions are not very well known since she signed over her inventions to France.
Interesting story. It reminds me of the importance of education outside of schools. I cannot help but notice that students are not taught how to start their own businesses without going to College. If they were, I believe there would be more inventions by young adults. While I encourage what is referred to as “Higher Education”, I believe too that in the world we live in it is possible to make it without pursuing a two or four year University. It’s cool, but I do not believe it is necessary for survival. Just look at the Master Degree holders who’ve had to settle for managerial positions at Wendy’s, or worse, cashier. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, a job is a job, but I am sure he or she didn’t spend thousands of dollars in tuition and four – six years of classroom time to work in fast food alongside Freshmen High School students.
My proposal for the students reading? Get into a trade, a 6-9month program that doesn’t cost as much as a University that will train you to specialize in a certain area (make sure that area is a strong one, like H VAC-Heating, Air-Conditioning, or MA, Medical Assistance). You will not have to pay back as much money and you’ll always have something open in your field. The two I have mentioned specifically are booming right now and they are not going out of business any time soon. Don’t stop here though, this is just the beginning. If you’re in High School, use that smart phone for something other than Facebook, and use Google for something other than finding funny Memes. But take full advantage of this technology and use it as a way to research how to start your own business. There are pros and cons to this technology, but the biggest advantage is that it’s much easier to spread important information and to start businesses. Because of Company’s like Vista Print, that allow for inexpensive ways to create your own business cards and promotional products, and Legal Zoom, that allow for inexpensive ways to create your own company, it’s much easier now. College to me is like the army: everyone loves you when you’re there. It gives the impression of doing something special with your life, you learn lots of new things and the world loves you. But, when you get out it’s a completely different world. People forget about you and you must find your own way. Welcome to the real world.
In the end, I do not speak against College but be smart about it. Go to acquire the skills you will need to start your own company, not just to work at Dr. Feel Good’s fortune 500. The purpose is to own what you do. Create your own schedule, your own hours, and retire when you feel like it. What advice do you think is being given to the children of billionaires?
Welcome back to another episode of Black History Fun Fact Friday. I know I know, the sun will be setting soon but, better late than never right? 🙂 Tonight we’ll be looking at: 12 Black Inventors You May Not Know. I was surprised to find that many of them either died recently (2000-) or are still alive. Enjoy:
1. Lewis Latimer (1848 – 1928)
What He Invented: The Carbon Filament For The Light Bulb. Why It’s Important: Latimer is one of the greatest inventors of all time. Latimer helped make the light bulb a common feature in households. In 1881, he received a patent for inventing a method of producing carbon filaments, which made the bulbs longer-lasting, more efficient and cheaper.
In 1876, he worked with Alexander Graham Bell to draft the drawings required for the patent of Bell’s telephone.
2. Patricia Bath (1942-Present)
What She Invented: The Cataract Laserphaco Probe. Why It’s Important: Her device used an innovative method of removing cataract lenses with a laser, which was more accurate than the drill-like instruments that were in common use at the time. The New York ophthalmologist’s invention, patented in 1988, helped save the eyesight of millions and even restored sight to people who had been blind for more than 30 years.
3. Otis Boykin (1920 -1982)
What He Invented: The Artificial Heart Pacemaker Control Unit. Why It’s Important: Although there were variations to the pacemaker before Boykin’s invention, the modern-day pacemaker would not exist without his work. Boykin, also sought and received a patent for a wire precision resistor on June 16, 1959. This resistor would later be used in radios and televisions.
4. Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999)
What She Invented: Closed-Circuit Television Security
Why Its Important: Marie Van Brittan Brown received a patent in 1969, making her the first person to develop a patent for closed- circuit television security. Brown’s system was designed with four peepholes and a motorized camera that could slide up and down to look at each one. Her invention became the framework for the modern closed-circuit television system that is widely used for surveillance, crime prevention and traffic monitoring.
5. Granville T. Woods (1856-1910)
What He Invented: The Multiplex Telegraph. Why It’s Important: The Multiplex Telegraph was a device that sent messages between train stations and moving trains. His work assured a safer and better public transportation system for the cities of the United States.
6. Mildred Kenner (1924-2004)
What She invented: The Sanitary Belt
Why Its Important: Mildred Kenner joined her sister Mary Davidson in patenting many practical inventions. Neither of the sisters had any technical education, but that didn’t stop them from inventing the Sanitary Belt in 1956. Three years later, Kenner invented the mosture-resistant pocket for the belt. While disabled from multiple sclerosis, Kenner went on to invent The Walker and the toilet-tissue holder.
7. Gerald A. Lawson (1940 -2011)
What He Invented: The Modern Home-Video Gaming Console. Why It’s Important: Anyone who owns a Playstation, Wii or Xbox should know Lawson’s name. He created the first home video-game system that used interchangeable cartridges, offering gamers a chance to play a variety of games and giving video-game makers a way to earn profits by selling individual games, a business model that exists today.
8. Sarah Goode (1855-1905)
What She invented: The Folding Cabinet Bed
Why Its Important: Sarah Goode was an entrepreneur and inventor, who was the first African-American woman to receive a U.S. patent. Goode invented a folding cabinet bed which provided people who lived in small spaces to utilize their space efficiently. When the bed was folded up, it looked like a desk. The desk was fully functional, with spaces for storage. She received a patent for it on July 14, 1885.
9. Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950)
What He Invented: The Blood Bank. Why It’s Important: His research in the field of blood transfusions led to the development of improved techniques for blood storage. He applied his expert knowledge to the development of large-scale blood banks early in World War II. His invention allowed medics to save thousands of lives of the Allied forces.
He directed the blood plasma programs of the United States and Great Britain in World War II, but resigned after a ruling that the blood of African-Americans would be segregated.
10. Marc Hannah ( 1956-Present)
What He Invented: 3-D Graphics Technology Used in Films. Why It’s Important: Anyone awed by the special effects in the films Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and The Abyss should thank Chicago-native Marc Hannah. The computer scientist is one of the founders, in 1982, of the software firm Silicon Graphics (now SGI), where the special-effects genius developed 3-D graphics technology that would be used in many Hollywood movies.
11. Frederick M. Jones (1892-1961)
What He Invented: Mobile Refrigeration Why It’s Important: His invention allowed the transportation of perishable foods such as produce and meats, which changed eating habits across the country. Thermo King, the company he co-founded, became a leading manufacturer of refrigerated transportation. Jones also developed an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military field kitchens. Jones was awarded over 60 patents during his lifetime.
12. Alice Parker (1865- death date unknown)
What She Invented: Central Heating
Why Its Important: In 1919, Alice Parker of Morristown, New Jersey, invented a new and improved gas heating furnace that provided central heating.
Thanks for stopping by Black History Fun Facts. Below is last week’s episode in case you missed it: