Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson - blackinventor.comJack Johnson is one of the most interesting inventors ever, not simply because of his invention but more so because of his celebrated and controversial life. Johnson was born on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas under the name John Arthur Johnson and spent much of his teenage life working on boats and along the city’s docks. He began boxing in 1897 and quickly became an accomplished and feared fighter. Standing 6′ 1″ and weighing 192 lbs., Johnson captured the “Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World” on February 3, 1903 in Los Angeles, California and became the World Heavyweight Champion in 1908. He defeated Tommy Burns for the title and thereby became the first Black man to hold the World Heavyweight Title, a fact that did not endear him to the hearts of white boxing fans.

Johnson was extremely confident about his capabilities, and defeated everyone he faced with ease. He also bucked many of the social “rules” of the day and openly dated White women. This eventually got him into trouble in 1912 when he was arrested for violation of the Mann Act, a law often used to prevent Black men from traveling with white women. He was charged with taking his White girlfriend, Lucille Cameron, across state lines across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Although he and Lucille married later in the year, he was convicted of the crime by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who would later become the Commissioner of Major League Baseball) and was sentenced to Federal prison for one year. Before he could be imprisoned, he and Lucille fled to Europe.

Johnson eventually returned to the United States and was sent to Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas. While in prison, Johnson found need for a tool which would help tighten of loosening fastening devices. He therefore crafted a tool and eventually patented it on April 18, 1922, calling it a wrench.

Jack Johnson died on June 10, 1946 in an automobile accident in Raleigh, North Carolina and was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954. Although many boxing fans are unaware of the life of the first Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion, they probably utilize his invention routinely around their homes.

James Forten

James Forten - blackinventor.comJames Forten was born in 1766 as a free Black man in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over the course of his lifetime, he would make an impact upon the fortunes of industries and the lives of his fellow man.

Forten was the son of Thomas and Sarah Forten and the grandson of slaves. He was raised in Philadelphia and educated in Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for colored children. At age eight, James began working for Robert Bridges sail loft, and worked alongside his father. A year later his father died in a boating accident and James was forced to take on additional work to provide for his family.

When he turned 14 he worked as a powder boy during the Revolutionary War on the Royal Lewis sailing ship. After being captured by the British, he was released and returned home to again begin working in Mr. Bridges loft. Pleased with his work and ambition, Mr. Bridges eventually appointed him to the foreman’s position in the loft. In 1798 Bridges decided to retire and wanted Forten to remain in charge of the loft. He loaned enough money to Forten to purchase the loft and soon James owned the business, employing 38 people.

Around this time, Forten began experimenting with different types of sails for ships and finally invented one that he found was better suited for maneuvering and maintaining greater speeds. Although he did not patent the sail, he was able to benefit financially, as his sailing loft became one of the most successful and prosperous ones in Philadelphia.

The fortune he soon made was enormous for any man, Black or White. Forten spent his money and lived a luxurious life, but he also made good use of his resources on people other than his self. More than half of his considerable fortune was devoted towards abolitionist causes. He often purchased slaves freedom, helped to finance and bring in funding for William Garrison’s newspaper, the Libertarian, opened his home on Lombard Street as an Underground Railroad depot and opened a school for Black children.

James Forten died in 1842 after living an incredible life. His early years were devoted to providing for his mother, his middle years towards building his fortune and supporting his family and his later years to uplifting his fellow man. He was not only a great inventor, but an even greater man.


James Forten – Better Not Bitter


James West

James West - blackinventor.comJames Edward West was born on February 10, 1931 in Prince Edward County, Virginia. He was an inquisitive young boy, fascinated with electronics and always ready to take things apart to discover how they worked. His curiosity almost got the better of him when he was eight years old and decided repair a broken radio. Confident that he had fixed the radio, he plugged it into a ceiling outlet, standing on the brass footboard of his bed. Unfortunately, a bolt of 120 volts of electricity shot through his body, temporarily paralyzing him where he stood. Fortunately his brother was standing nearby and knocked him onto the floor, terminating the shock he was receiving. Undeterred, rather than being afraid he became even further intrigued by electronics and electricity.

Although his father had encouraged him to pursue an education, he pushed him to go to medical school, noting that very few Blacks were ever hired by universities for science oriented careers. His father was afraid that James was “taking the long road toward working at the post office.” After graduating from high school, however, West enrolled at Temple University in 1953 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1957. While in school, he had worked during the summers as an intern for the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hills, New Jersey. Upon graduation he was hired by Bell Labs in a full-time position as an acoustical scientist specializing in electroacoustics, physical and architectural acoustics.

In 1960, West was teamed up with Gerhard M. Sessler, a German-born physicist, and the two were tasked to develop an inexpensive, highly sensitive and compact microphone. At the time, condenser microphones were used in most telephones, but were expensive to manufacture and necessitated the use of a large battery source. Microphones convert sound waves into electrical voltages, thus allowing the sound to be transmitted through a cord to a receiver.

Because of the associated expense of condenser microphones, they were impractical for everyday home usage. West and Sessler decided to use an electret (an electrical insulator material) using an inexpensive film made of teflon and stretched it taut so that it hung over the top of a metal surface. After being exposed to an electrical field, the electret was able to hold its charge. As West described, “as you talk into the microphone, pressure fluctuations in the air distort the film. Charges in the metal surface experience fluctuating forces as the polarized electret moves above it. As a result of these forces, a very small current flows from the metal surface through a wire that touches it.” Their electret microphone solved every problem they were seeking to address. It was inexpensive, could hold a charge without having to be connected to a power source, was compact and durable and could be applied to common uses in the office or in the home. The final model was finished in 1962 and on January 14, 1964, the pair received patent number 3,118,022 for their “electroacoustic transducer.” By 1968, the microphone was in wide scale production and was quickly adopted as the industry standard. Approximately 90% of microphones in use today are based on this invention and almost all telephones utilize it, as well as tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors and hearing aids.

While the foil-electret microphone was his most noted invention, West obtained more than 100 U.S. and foreign patents over his lifetime and contributed to hundreds of technical papers and books on acoustics and physics. Perhaps his most significant contributions are his efforts to increase minority and female participation in the field of science. He has headed numerous programs with Bell Labs (founding member of the Association of Black Labs Employees) and upon retiring from the company in 2001 (as a Bell Labs Fellow), he became a research professor at Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (where he serves on the Divisional Diversity Council.

James West received many honors during his career, including being inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1999, Inventor of the Year (by the state of New Jersey) in 1995, elected as the President of the Acoustical Society of America in 1998 and elected to the National Academy of Engineering the same year. In 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science by the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He undoubtedly is proud that he was able to exceed his father’s expectations.

Black Inventor - blackinventor.com

John Parker

John P. Parker was born in 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia. His father was white and his mother was a black slave. John was sold to a slave agent in 1835 and then sold to a slave caravan which took him to Mobile, Alabama where he was purchased by a physician. Working as a house servant, Parker learned to read and write, often learning alongside of the physician’s sons.

In 1843 John was sent North with the owners sons as they went to attend college. John was soon brought back to Mobile when the physician feared he might escape into the Northern territories. Back in Mobile, Parker worked as an craftsman’s apprentice for an iron manufacturer and learned to be a plasterer. After being abused by one of his bosses, John attempted to escape to New Orleans but was captured trying to flee by a riverboat and was returned to his owner.

Parker eventually became a molder and was transferred to a New Orleans foundry where he was able to do extra work to earn money. This would allow him to purchase his freedom in 1845 for $1,800.00. At this point he moved north to. Indiana and began working in foundries. At the same time he secretly became a conductor on the “Underground Railroad” which eventually helped to smuggle more than 1,000 slaves to escape into free states such as Indiana and Ohio.

In 1848, Parker moved to Beachwood Factory, Ohio where he opened a general store. Six years later he opened a small foundry near Ripley, Ohio which produced special and general castings. The foundry eventually employed more than 25 workers and manufactured slide valve engines and reapers. In 1863 Parker served as a recruiter for the 27th Regiment, U.S Colored troop during the United States Civil War and furnished castings to the war effort.

Joseph Dickinson

Joseph Dickinson - blackinventor.comJoseph Dickinson was born in Canada in 1955 and moved to Michigan in 1870. He learned about various types of organs while working for the Clough and Warren Organ Company in Detroit in 1872. One of the organs he designed was awarded a prize at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1876 and Dickinson was quickly hired to build organs for major customers, including the Royal Family of Portugal.

Joseph Dickinson - blackinventor.com

Dickinson also invented a roller mechanism for the player piano which made the piano more reliable and able to play the sheet music in forward or reverse mode.

After marrying Eva Gould in 1884, Dickinson formed the Dickinson-Gould Organ Company along with his father-in-law. The company manufactured reed organs and Dickinson received numerous patents for them, the last coming in 1912.


Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee - blackinventor.comJoseph Lee was born in 1849 and lived most of his life in Boston, Massachusetts. Lee was very prominent in the food services industry, having begun working as a boy at a bakery. He soon began preparing, cooking and serving food, eventually opening two successful restaurants in the Boston area. In the late 1890s he owned and managed the Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, Massachusetts for 17 years. In 1902, as a way of maintaining an involvement in the food services industry, Lee opened a catering business called the Lee Catering Company which served the wealthy population of Boylston Street in the Back Bay. At the same time he also operated the Squantum Inn, a summer resort in South Shores specializing in seafood. The catering business was a great success and during this time he became interest in eliminating a situation that had become annoying to him.

Lee became very frustrated at what he saw as a waste of bread which would have to be thrown out if it was as much as a day old. Considered a master cook, Lee had long believed that crumbs from bread was quite useful in preparing food, as opposed to cracker crumbs which many others favored. He decided that instead of simply throwing stale bread away, he would use it to make bread crumbs. He thus set out to invent of device that could automate tearing, crumbling and grinding the bread into crumbs. He was finally successful and patented the invention on June 4, 1895. He used the bread crumbs for various dishes including croquettes, batter for cakes, fried chops, fried fish and more. He soon sold the rights to his bread crumbling machine and the Royal Worcester Bread Crumb Company of Boston soon had the devices in major restaurants around the world.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Lee looked for another way of improving food preparation and invented an automatic bread making machine. The machine not only mixed the ingredients, but also kneaded the dough. The machine was so fast and efficient it was able to perform the tasks of five or six men and did so more hygienically and at a much cheaper cost. It also produced a higher quality product, with a much better taste and texture. He received a patent for the machine, which is the basis for machines still in use today.

Joseph Lee died in 1905 and is an honored pioneer in the food preparation industry.