Robert Pelham

Robert Pelham - blackinventor.comRobert Pelham was born in January of 1859 in Petersburg, Virginia. His parents, Robert and Frances Pelham, moved the family to Detroit, Michigan in hopes of finding a more favorable atmosphere for their children to receive an education and opportunities for decent employment. While enrolled in public schools, Pelham was hired by a newspaper called the Daily Post, working under Zachariah Chandler, who trained him in the skills of journalism. He remained with the paper for 20 years while at the same time managing a Black weekly newspaper called the Detroit Plaindealer.

Pelham would later hold a number of important jobs, including Deputy Oil Inspector for the state of Michigan, Special Agent for the United States Land Office and Inspector for the Detroit Water Department. In 1893 Robert married Gabrielle Lewis and the couple moved to Washington, D.C. in 1900 where he took a job as a clerk for the United States Census Department. Studying at night, Pelham received a law degree from Howard University in 1904 and soon began work on a project to help him with his job at the Census Department.

At the Census Department, a clerk had to manually paste statistical slips onto sheets and organized appropriately. The process was messy and required many employees to carry it out. Pelham devised a method for automating the pasting process and set out to create a device that could accomplish it. Starting with a rolling pin, cigar boxes, wooden screws and other miscellaneous items, Pelham developed a working model which he put into effect. The apparatus would go on to save the Department more than $3,000.00 He continued working for the Census Bureau for 30 years, and during that time patented two items – the tabulation device in 1905 and a tallying machine in 1913.

After retiring from the Census Bureau, he began editing a Black newspaper called the Washington Tribune, and later created the Capital News Services, a news agency devoted to Black issues of the day. In June of 1943 Robert Pelham died leaving behind him a list of accomplishments.

Sarah Goode

Sarah E. Goode was the owner of a furniture store in Chicago, Illinois. Her claim to fame is that she was the first Black Woman to receive a patent.

In an effort to help people maximize their limited space, Goode invented a Folding Cabinet Bed. The Cabinet Bed when folded up resembled a desk which included compartments for stationary and writing instruments. Goode received her patent on July 14, 1885.

Shelby Davidson

Shelby Davidson - blackinventor.comWhile Shelby Davidson could not viewed as a prolific inventor, he is significant in that he served as a great example of education, determination and perseverance.

Davidson was born in Lexington, Kentucky on May 10, 1868, the son of Shelby Jeames and Amelia Scott Davidson. Having been born after Emancipation, the younger Shelby was able to take advantage of the educational opportunities in the public school system. He later traveled to Louisville and enrolled in a state university program. Dissatisfied with the scope and quality of the program, he enrolled in Howard University in 1887. Howard, at the time, was the premier academic institution for Black students. As such, Shelby had to take additional courses for two years in a preparatory program in order to get him up to speed with his colleagues.

In 1983, Davidson’s college career was in jeopardy when charges were brought against him alleging that he had violated University rules regarding his involvement with a married woman. He was promptly expelled along with four other students. Davidson was furious as he had not been formally charged, nor had he been afforded the opportunity to defend himself. After almost six years in the University, he was unwilling to accept the decision and decided to fight back. First he argued that the faculty board had taken action against him and did not have the authority to do so. Further, he argued, that the action was invalid because he had not been afforded the opportunity to defend himself. He drafted an appeal which he forwarded to the Howard University trustees. Eventually, a negotiation took place and the matter was resolved and Davidson received a degree from the University in 1896.

The tenacity and thoroughness with which he fought back was precursor to how he would pursue his career. The experience also led him in the direction of pursuing law as a career. He was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1899 and the the District of Columbia bar in 1900.

Davidson would soon take a job with the United States Treasury Department with the help of his congressman William C. P. Breckenridge and he was later transfered to the Office of the Auditor for the Post Office department, first as a messenger and then as a Money Order associate Class C. After several promotions he was working in a department where the government was employing adding machines. Without anyone available to fix or maintain them, Shelby was asked to take on these responsibilities in addition to his regular job. His performance in these roles was enough to gain him additional promotions as well as an invitation from the Burroughs Adding Machine Company (the leading manufacturer of adding machines) to attend a training program on adding machine repair at its Detroit facility.

Shelby’s familiarity with the machines was such that he decided to add an add-on device, one which managed the roll of paper that tabulated machine’s calculations The device was called a paper-rewind mechanism for adding machines which would automatically neatly and compactly roll up the paper, from a feeder spool to a rewinder spool. The mechanism allowed the paper to be review or for it to be stored. It was attached to the adding machine by a support arm and also contained an alarm system to alert the user when the paper strip had broken or was empty. Davidson patented the device on April 14, 1908.

In late 1907 he began his early attempts which resulted in a very cumbersome device that did not come close to the desired result. At this point he contacted Burroughs, hoping to persuade the company to take on solving the problem. After repeatedly being rebuffed by Burroughs, Davidson and Edwin J, Dowling (the chief electrician at the Post Office Division) continued working on the project themselves. Although they made great strides, by 1910 they decided to try to find another company to solve the problem. this time they turned to the Connecticut Computing Machine Company. The company conveyed that it was confident that it could come up with a practice solution. In the meantime Davidson and Dowling continued their work, achieving a breakthrough when they realized that the adding machine were turning on the 9, rather than on the 0 which was required for the money order fee calculation and in May 1910 they developed a working model.

At this point, Davidson and Dowling began the process of trying to patent invention and on March 9, 1911, they jointly filed a patent application.

In January 1912, the Patent Office suspended processing the application when it received interference complaints from both Burroughs and Connecticut Computing. Burroughs, it seemed, although declining to take on the project for Davidson, decided that it did see it as a viable money-maker and began working on building a prototype, perhaps guided by Davidson’s feedback which he had naively shared during discussions. Connecticut Computing argued that while they had not communicated that they had solved the problem, the company was taken by surprise by Davidson and Dowling’s patent application. The Patent Office Commissioner of Interference would ultimately find that Connecticut Computing had “reduced the invention to practice” before Davidson and Dowling and because Davidson could not produce drawings as evidence of his work he could not prevail in the case over Burroughs.

Eventually, Davidson would leave the Post Office Division as a new administration had come in and was not supportive of hi efforts, effectively demoting him. Davidson had been admitted to the D.C. Court of Appeals in 1903 and the United States Supreme Court in 1912 and thus fell back into the practice of law. At the same time, however, he had started a real estate business in 1909, a business that would secure his financial well-being. He also never lost his interest in innovation as he set out to create an early coin counting device. He would eventually develop a working prototype but it is unknown what ended up happening with the device.

Shelby Davidson’s contributions were great, not only because of his creativity, but also because he demonstrated the ingenuity could help one gain control over one’s career and therefore status in society.


  • The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity (Patricia Carter Sluby).
  • Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson (Rayvon Fouche).
  • Shelby Davidson, Inventor: In His Own Words.

Thomas Elkins

Thomas Elkins -

Thomas Elkins designed a device that helped with the task of preserving perishable foods by way of refrigeration. At the time, the common way of accomplishing this was by placing items in a large container and surrounding them with large blocks of ice. Unfortunately, the ice generally melted very quickly and the food soon perished.

Elkins’ device utilized metal cooling coils which became very cold and would cool down items which they surrounded. The coils were enclosed within a container and perishable items were placed inside. The coils cooled the container to a temperature significantly lower than that inside of a room thereby keeping the perishable items cool and fresh for longer periods of time.

Thomas Elkins - blackinventor.comElkins patented this refrigerated apparatus on November 4, 1879 and had previously patented a chamber commode in 1872 and a dining, ironing table and quilting frame combined in 1870.

Thomas Mensah

Thomas Mensah - blackinventor.comThomas Mensah was born in Kumasi, Ghana in 1950. His father, J.K. Mensah, was a businessman who shipped cocoa products to chocolate manufacturers in France. Thomas was an exceptionally bright child, learning to read newspapers at an early age and becoming fluent in French. As a child, he often conversed in French with his father’s business associates. He went on to twice win the National Competition in France in 1968 and 1970.

Thomas received his early education at the exclusive Adisadel College boys school in Cape Coast. An excellent student, particularly in science and math, he received a scholarship to study chemical engineering at the University of Science and Technology Kumasi, Ghana. An honors student, he graduated in 1974 and was awarded a fellowship from the French government to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Science and Technology in Montpelier, France (USTL). While enrolled at USTL, he took part in a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received a certificate in Modeling and Simulation of Chemical Processes from the university in 1977. A year later, he graduated from USTL with a PhD.

In 1980, Thomas travelled to the United States where he took a job with Air Product and Chemicals in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He was a research engineer in the chemical group division. One of his projects was to observe the mixing process in the Polyvinyl Alcohol Process Improvement Division. The process included injecting PVAC ( a polymer having a high resistance to to flow) with a catalyst. Inside of a thin film reactor which used a moving blade system. The resulting mixture would end up on a moving belt where it would cure into a white slab of Polyvinyl Alcohol, later cut into smaller pieces. A problem occurred when the mixture was of poor quality, as the resulting polyvinyl acetate did not cure properly, resulting in an usable product (and often causing a shutdown of the manufacturing process.

Mensah, after long research and an innovative use of high-tech video equipment was able to determine that when the centers of the vortices during the mixture process often trapped poorly mixed reactants , allowing them to proceed onto the moving belt. Thomas solved this by altering the blade configuration in the mixing process (as well as altering the notch depth). This redesign of the high speed thin film industrial mixers produced a much purer blend, thus improving the efficiency of the process and diminishing the delays which often shut down the manufacturing plant. He was rewarded by winning second prize in a prestigious research competition.

In 1983 he joined Corning Glass Works in Corning, New York as an engineer. He was brought on to help solve efficiency problems in the Corning Fiber Optic manufacturing process. Fiber optics refers to the design and application of optical fiber. Optical fibers refers to glass or plastic fiber through which light travels, usually carrying information. Fiber optics wires (or cables) are more efficient conductors of communication material than metal wire. Unfortunately, at that time it was difficult to increase the production of fiber optical material because the delicate glass fibers would break very easily if the production speed was increased. Thus, in the drawing and coating phase, the process was limited to producing only two meters per second of fiber optic stand.

Mensah saw that during the coating phase, bubbles were being trapped on the coating surface during the curing process. This caused inefficient losses of data. Using his knowledge of boundary layer theory, he solved this problem by injecting carbon dioxide gas near the boundary layer during the high speed coating process. This eliminated the bubbles from forming. He also was able to increase the strength of the glass allowing the manufacturing process to increase to 20 feet per send, a ten-fold improvement. He was awarded patents for each of these improvements along with two other patents for additional work.

In 1986, Thomas moved on to the AT&T Bell Laboratories in Georgia. At Bell he focused his attention on creating missile systems which utilized fiber optics for their guidance systems. In these systems, a small camera in the nose of the missile delivered images of a target through the fiber optic wires to the pilot who could then lock onto the target and hit them with extreme accuracy and precision. Dr. Mensah and his colleagues developed missiles that could use the fiber optic technology while traveling at MACH 1 (the speed of sound).

In addition to his work with fiber optics, Mensah found success in other areas of science. He has created superconductors for space communication, designed a system for creating solid state rechargeable cell phone batteries, developed new filament wound composite structures to be used to provide a light replacement for tank gun barrels among many other inventions. He would eventually become the Founder of georgia Aerospace which manufactured specialized composite structures for stealth aircraft.

In almost every aspect of his career,Thomas Mensah has met with enormous success on projects that have great historical significance. he has worked for private industry as well as for the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense and has been awarded seven patents. He has also received awards and recognition from the high tech community including the Corning Glass Works Industrial Outstanding Contributor Award for Innovation in Fiber Optics (1985), AT&T Bell Laboratories High Performance Award (1988), and the AIChE William Grimes Award for Excellence in Chemical Engineering (2007). He serves as a great model of turning great ambition into great success.



Dr. Thomas Mensah


Valerie Thomas

Valerie Thomas - blackinventor.comAs a child, Valerie Thomas became fascinated with the mysteries of technology, tinkering with electronics with her father and reading books on electronics written for adolescent boys. The likelihood of her enjoying a career in science seemed bleak, as her all-girls high school did not push her to take advanced science or math classes or encourage her in that direction. Nonetheless, her curiosity was piqued and upon her graduation from high school, she set out on the path to become a scientist.

Thomas enrolled at Morgan State University and performed exceedingly well as a student, graduating with a degree in physics (one of only two women in her class to do so). She accepted a position with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), serving as a data analyst. After establishing herself within the agency, she was asked to manage the “Landsat” project, an image processing system that would allow a satellite to transmit images from space.

In 1976 Thomas attended a scientific seminar where she viewed an exhibit demonstrating an illusion. The exhibit used concave mirrors to fool the viewer into believing that a light bulb was glowing even after it had been unscrewed from its socket. Thomas was fascinated by what she saw, and imagined the commercial opportunities for creating illusions in this manner.

In 1977 she began experimenting with flat mirrors and concave mirrors. Flat mirrors, of course, provide a reflection of an object which appear to lie behind the glass surface. A concave mirror, on the other hand, presents a reflection that appears to exist in front of the glass, thereby providing the illusion that they exist in a three-dimensional manner. Thomas believed that images, presented in this way could provide a more accurate, if not more interesting, manner of representing video data. She not only viewed the process as a potential breakthrough for commercial television, but also as scientific tool for NASA and its image delivery system.

Thomas applied for a patent for her process on December 28, 1978 and the patent was issued on October 21, 1980. The invention was similar to the technique of holographic production of image recording which uses coherent radiation and employs front wave reconstruction techniques which render the process unfeasible due to the enormous expense and complicated setup. Parabolic mirrors, however, can render these optical illusions with the use use of a concave mirror near the subject image and a second concave mirror at a remote site. In the description of her patent, the process is explained. “Optical illusions may be produced by parabolic mirrors wherein such images produced thereby are possessed with three dimensional attributes. The optical effect may be explained by the fact that the human eyes see an object from two view points separated laterally by about six centimeters. The two views show slightly different spatial relationships between near and near distant objects and the visual process fuses these stereoscopic views to a single three dimensional impression. The same parallax view of an object may be experienced upon reflection of an object seen from a concave mirror.” ( The Illusion Transmitter would thus enable the users to render three-dimensional illusions in real-time.

Valerie Thomas continued working for NASA until 1995 when she retired. In addition to her work with the Illusion Transmitter she designed programs to research Halley’s comet and ozone holes. She received numerous awards for her service, including the GSFC Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. In her career, she showed that the magic of fascination can often lead to concrete scientific applications for real-world problem-solving.