Inventor of the Automatic Lubricator
Fred Jones was born on May 17, 1893 in Covington, Kentucky. His father was a white railroad worker of Irish descent and his mother was Black. It is believed that his mother died while he was young and Fred was raised by his father. When Fred was eight years old, his father took him to Cincinnati, Ohio to where they visited St. Mary’s Catholic Church rectory. Fred’s father urged Father Edward A. Ryan to take Fred in in order to expose him to an environment where he might have a better opportunity for gaining an education. Fred performed chores around the church in return for being fed and housed, cutting the grass, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors and learning to cook. At an early age, Fred demonstrated a great interest in mechanical working, whether taking apart a toy, a watch or a kitchen appliance. Eventually he became interested in automobiles, so much so that upon turning 12 years of age, he ran away from his home at the rectory and began working at the R.C. Crothers Garage.
Initially hired to sweep and clean the garage, Fred spent much of his time observing the mechanics as they worked on cars. His observation, along with a voracious appetite for learning through reading developed within Fred an incredible base of knowledge about automobiles and their inner workings. Within three years, Fred had become the foreman of the garage. The garage was primarily designed to repair automobiles brought in by customers but also served as a studio for building racing cars. After a few years of building these cars, Fred desired to drive them and soon became one of the most well known racers in the Great Lakes region. After brief stints working aboard a steamship and a hotel, Jones moved to Hallock, Minnesota began designing and building racecars which he drove them at local tracks and at county fairs. His favorite car was known as Number 15 and it was so well designed it not only defeated other automobile but once triumphed in a race against an airplane.
On August 1, 1918 Jones enlisted in the 809 Pioneer Infantry of the United States Army and served in France during World War I. While serving, Jones recruited German prisoners of war and rewired his camp for electricity, telephone and telegraph service. After being discharged by the Army, Fred returned to Hallock in 1919. Looking for work, Jones often aided local doctors by driving them around for housecalls during the winter season. When navigation through the snow proved difficult, Fred attached skis to the undercarriage of an old airplane body and attached an airplane propeller to a motor and soon whisked around town a high speeds in his new snowmachine. Over the next few years Fred began tinkering with almost everything he could find, inventing things he could not find and improving upon those he could. When one of the doctors he worked for on occasion complained that he wished he did not have to wait for patient to come into his office for x-ray exams, Jones created a portable x-ray machine that could be taken to the patient. Unfortunately, like many of his early inventions, Jones never thought to apply for a patent for machine and watched helplessly as other men made fortunes off of their versions of the device. Undaunted, Jones set out for other projects, including a radio transmitter, personal radio sets and eventually motion picture devices.
In 1927, Jones was faced with the problem of helping friend convert their silent movie theater into a “talkie” theater. Not only did he convert scrap metal into the parts necessary to deliver a soundtrack to the video, he also devised ways to stabilize and improve the picture quality. When Joe Numero, the head of Ultraphone Sound Systems heard about Fred’s devices, he invited Fred to come to Minneapolis for a job interview. After taking a position with the company, Fred began improving on many of the existing devices the company sold. Many of his improvements were so significant, representatives from A.T. & T and RCA sat down to talk with Fred and were amazed at the depth of his knowledge on intricate details, particularly in light of his limited educational background. Around this time, Fred came up with a new idea – an automatic ticket-dispensing machine to be used at movie theaters. Fred applied for and received a patent for this device in June of 1939 and the patent rights were eventually sold to RCA.
At some point, Joe Numero was presented with the task of developing a device which would allow large trucks to transport perishable products without them spoiling. Jones set to work and developed a cooling process that could refrigerate the interior of the tractor-trailer. In 1939 Fred and Joe Numero received a patent for the vehicle air-conditioning device which would later be called a Thermo King.
This product revolutionized several industries including shipping and grocery businesses. Grocery chains were now able to import and export products which previously could only have been shipped as canned goods. Thus, the frozen food industry was created and the world saw the emergence of the “supermarket.”
In addition to installing the Thermo King refrigeration units in trucks and tractor-trailers, Jones modified the original design so they could be outfitted for trains, boats and ships.
During World War II, the Department of Defense found a great need portable refrigeration units for distributing food and blood plasma to troops in the field. The Department called upon Thermo King for a solution. Fred modified his device and soon had developed a prototype which would eventually allow airplanes to parachute these units down behind enemy lines to the waiting troops.
For the next 20 years, Fred Jones continued make improvements on existing devices and devised new inventions when necessary to aid the public. Jones died on February 21, 1961 and was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology, one of the greatest honors an inventor could receive. Jones was the first Black inventor to ever receive such an honor.
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Garrett Morgan was born on March 4, 1877 in Paris, Kentucky the seventh of 11 children born to Sydney and Elizabeth Morgan. Garrett, at the early age of 14 decided that he should travel north to Ohio in order to receive a better education. Morgan is an inspiration to many education seekers today, whether pursuing business with an AACSB accredited online MBA or masters in education. He moved to Cincinnati and then to Cleveland, working as a handyman in order to make ends meet. In Cleveland, he learned the inner workings of the sewing machine and in 1907 opened his own sewing machine store, selling new machines and repairing old ones. In 1908 Morgan married Mary Anne Hassek with whom he would have three sons.
In 1909, Morgan opened a tailoring shop, selling coats, suits and dresses. While working in this shop he came upon a discover which brought about his first invention. He noticed that the needle of a sewing machine moved so fast that its friction often scorched the thread of the woolen materials. He thus set out to develop a liquid that would provide a useful polish to the needle, reducing friction. When his wife called him to dinner, he wiped the liquid from his hands onto a a piece of pony-fur cloth. When he returned to his workshop, he saw that the fibers on the cloth were now standing straight up. He theorized that the fluid had actually straightened the fibers. In order to confirm his theory, he decided to apply some of the fluid to the hair of a neighbor’s dog, an Airedale. The fluid straightened the dog’s hair so much, the neighbor, not recognizing his own pet, chased the animal away. Morgan then decided try the fluid on himself, to small portions of his hair at first, and then to his entire head. He was successful and had invented the first human-hair straightener. He marketed the product under the name the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream and sold by his G. A. Morgan Refining Company, which became a very successful business.
In 1912, Morgan developed another invention, much different from his hair straightener. Morgan called it a Safety Hood and patented it as a Breathing Device, but the world came to know it as a Gas Mask. The Safety Hood consisted of a hood worn over the head of a person from which emanated a tube which reached near the ground and allowed in clean air. The bottom of the tube was lined with a sponge type material that would help to filter the incoming air. Another tube existed which allowed the user to exhale air out of the device. Morgan intended the device to be used “to provide a portable attachment which will enable a fireman to enter a house filled with thick suffocating gases and smoke and to breathe freely for some time therein, and thereby enable him to perform his duties of saving life and valuables without danger to himself from suffocation. The device is also efficient and useful for protection to engineers, chemists and working men who are obliged to breathe noxious fumes or dust derived from the materials in which they are obliged to work.”
The National Safety Device Company, with Morgan as its General Manager was set up to manufacture and sell the device and it was demonstrated at various exhibitions across the country. At the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation, the device won first prize and Morgan was award a gold medal. While demonstrations were good for sales, the true test of the product would come only under real life circumstances.
That opportunity arose on July 24, 1916 when an explosion occurred in a tunnel being dug under Lake Erie by the Cleveland Water Works. The tunnel quickly filled with smoke, dust and poisonous gases and trapped 32 workers underground. They were feared lost because no means of safely entering and rescuing them was known. Fortunately someone at the scene remembered about Morgan’s invention and ran to call him at his home where he was relaxing. Garrett and his brother Frank quickly arrived at the scene, donned the Safety Hood and entered the tunnel. After a heart wrenching delay, Garrett appeared from the tunnel carrying a survivor on his back as did his brother seconds later. The crowd erupted in a staggering applause and Garrett and Frank reentered the tunnel, this time joined by two other men. While they were unable to save all of the workers, the were able to rescue many who would otherwise have certainly died. Reaction to Morgan’s device and his heroism quickly spread across the city and the country as newspapers picked up on the story. Morgan received a gold medal from a Cleveland citizens group as well as a medal from the International Association of Fire Engineers, which also made him an honorary member.
Soon, orders came in from fire and police departments across the country. Unfortunately, many of these orders were canceled when it was discovered that Morgan was Black. Apparently, many people would rather face danger and possibly death than rely on a lifesaving device created by a Black man. Nonetheless, with the outbreak of World War I and the use of poisonous gases therein, Morgan’s Safety Hood, now known as the Gas Mask was utilized by the United States Army and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers.
Although he could have relied on the income his Gas Masks generated, Morgan felt compelled to try to solve safety problems of the day. One day he witnessed a traffic accident when an automobile collided with a horse and carriage. The driver of the automobile was knocked unconscious and the horse had to be destroyed. He set out to develop a means of automatically directing traffic without the need of a policeman or worker present. He patented an automatic traffic signal which he said could be “operated for directing the flow of traffic” and providing a clear and unambiguous “visible indicator.”
Satisfied with his efforts, Morgan sold the rights to his device to the General Electric Company for the astounding sum of $40,000.00 and it became the standard across the country. Today’s modern traffic lights are based upon Morgan’s original design.
At that point, Morgan was honored by many influential people around him, including such tycoons as John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan (after whom he named one of his sons.) Although his successes had brought him status and acclaim, Morgan never forgot that his fellow Blacks still suffered injustices and difficulties. His next endeavor sought to address these as he started a newspaper called the Cleveland Call (later renamed as the Call & Post.) He also served as the treasurer of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men which eventually merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and ran as a candidate for Cleveland’s City Council
In his later years, Morgan would develop glaucoma and would thereby lose 90% of his vision. He died on July 27, 1963 and because of his contribution, the world is certainly a much safer place.
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The Man Behind The Traffic Signal
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Jan Matzeliger was born in Dutch Guiana (now known as Surinam) in South America. His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother was born in Dutch Guiana and was of African ancestry. His father had been sent to Surinam by the Dutch government to oversee the work going on in the South American country.
At an early age, Jan showed a remarkable ability to repair complex machinery and often did so when accompanying his father to a factory. When he turned 19, he decided to venture away from home to explore other parts of the world. For two years he worked aboard an East Indian merchant ship and was able to visit several countries. In 1873, Jan decided to stay in the United States for a while, landing in Pennsylvania. Although he spoke very little English, he was befriended by some Black residents who were active in a local church and took pity on him. Because he was good with his hands and mechanically inclined, he was able to get small jobs in order to earn a living.
At some point he began working for a cobbler and became interested in the making of shoes. At that time more than half of the shoes produced in the United States came from the small town of Lynn, Massachusetts. Still unable to speak more than rudimentary English, Matzeliger had a difficult time finding work in Lynn. After considerable time, he was able to begin working as a show apprentice in a shoe factory. He operated a McKay sole-sewing machine which was used to attached different parts of a shoe together. Unfortunately, no machines existed that could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. As such, attaching the upper part of a shoe to the sole had to be done by hand. The people who were able to sew the parts of the shoe together were called “hand lasters” and expert ones were able to produce about 50 pairs of shoes in a 10 hour work day. They were held in high esteem and were able to charge a high price for their services, especially after they banded together and formed a union called the Company of Shoemakers. Because the hand lasters were able to charge so much money, a pair of shoes was very expensive to purchase. Hand lasters were confident that they would continue to be able to demand high sums of money for their services saying “… no matter if the sewing machine is a wonderful machine. No man can build a machine that will last shoes and take away the job of the laster, unless he can make a machine that has fingers like a laster – and that is impossible.” Jan Matzeliger decided they were wrong.
After working all day Matzeliger took classes at night to learn English. Soon, he was able to read well enough to study books on physics and mechanical science. This enabled him to a number of inventions. Lacking sufficient money, he was unable to patent these inventions and watched helplessly as other people claimed to have created the devises and received the financial rewards they brought. Matzeliger did not despair over these situations because he was already thinking of a more important invention – the shoe laster.
Watching hand lasters all day, Matzeliger began understanding how they were able to join the upper parts of a shoe to the sole. At night he sat devising methods for imitating the mannerisms of the hand lasters and sketched out rough drawings of a machine that might work in the same manner.
Soon, Matzeliger began putting together a crude working model of his invention. Lacking the proper materials, he used whatever scraps he could find, including cigar boxes, discarded pieces of wood, scrap wire, nails and paper. After six months, he felt he was on the right track but knew he needed better materials in order to take the next steps.
Although he attempted to keep his invention a secret, people found out, including the expert hand lasters he was trying to “compete” with. These people criticized and ridiculed him and tried to dissuade him pursuing his goal. He considered on, however, and decided to try to raise money in order to improve his working model. He was offered $50.00 to sell the device he had created up to that point but turned it down, knowing that if people were interested in buying, he was on the right track.
As he improved the device, other offers of money came in, some as high as $1,500.00. Matzeliger could not bear to part with the device he had put so much work into creating so he held out until he reached a deal to sell a 66% interest in the devices to two investors, retaining the other third interest for himself. With the new influx of cash, Jan finished his second and third models of the machine. At this point he applied for a patent for the device.
Because no one could believe that anyone could create a machine which could duplicate the work of expert lasters, the patent office dispatched a representative to Lynn, Massachusetts to see the device in action. In March 1883, the United States Patent Office issued a patent to Jan Matzeliger for his “Lasting Machine.” Within two years, Matzeliger had perfected the machine to that point that it could produce up to 700 pairs of shoes each day (as compared to 50 per day for a hand laster.)
Sadly, Matzeliger would only enjoy his success for a short time, as he was afflicted with tuberculosis in 1886 and died on August 24, 1889 at the age of 37. As a result of his work, shoe manufacturing capabilities increased as did efficiency. This allowed for lower prices for consumers and more jobs for workers. Matzeliger left behind a legacy of tackling what was thought to be an impossible task – making shoes affordable for the masses.
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Invented an Improved Light Bulb
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The Black Inventor Online Museum ™, is a look at the great and often unrecognized pioneers in the field of invention and innovation.
Achievements by Black inventors can be seen as far back as ancient Africa but much of society has no idea that many of the products or devices that make their everyday lives more enjoyable are the result of the hard work and ingenuity of Blacks.
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