I must open this post with Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddam.” Simone somewhat jokingly described it in one preamble as a “show tune” for a show that “hadn’t been written yet.” The song is no joke, though.:
While I was doing research on Dr. Charles Drew this afternoon, I came across a site which offers “corrections” to a whole trove of Black History “Myths.” I have not fact-checked the many refutations below, but I wanted to share them. The page that hosts this info is down for the night, apparently due to traffic overload. Consider this page to stand as a mirror “site” of sorts. The research and information below is not mine. I’ve changed the coding only so that links refer to the content on the original site, since I am only “mirroring” one page and not the entire project. Contact info and Bibliography are on the original site. Please feel free to comment.
The content below is from: http://www33.brinkster.com/iiiii/inventions/
Perhaps you’ve heard the claims: Were it not for the genius and energy of African-American inventors, we might find ourselves in a world without traffic lights, peanut butter, blood banks, light bulb filaments, and a vast number of other things we now take for granted but could hardly imagine life without.
Such beliefs usually originate in books or articles about blackhistory. Since many of the authors have little interest in the history of technology outside of advertising black contributions to it, their stories tend to be fraught with misunderstandings, wishful thinking, or fanciful embellishments with no historical basis. The lack of historical perspective leads to extravagant overestimations of originality and importance: sometimes a slightly modified version of a pre-existing piece of technology is mistaken for the first invention of its type; sometimes a patent or innovation with little or no lasting value is portrayed as a major advance, even if there’s no real evidence it was ever used.
Unfortunately, some of the errors and exaggerations have acquired an illusion of credibility by repetition in mainstream outlets, especially during BlackHistory Month (see examples for the traffic light and ironing board). When myths go unchallenged for too long, they begin to eclipse the truth. Thus I decided to put some records straight. Although this page does not cover every dubious invention claim floating around out there, it should at least serve as a warning never to take any such claim for granted.
Each item below is listed with its supposed black originator beneath it along with the year it was supposedly invented, followed by something about the real origin of the invention or at least an earlier instance of it.
- Traffic Signal
- Invented by Garrett A. Morgan in 1923? No!
The first known traffic signal appeared in London in 1868 near the Houses of Parliament. Designed by JP Knight, it featured two semaphore arms and two gas lamps. The earliest electric traffic lights include Lester Wire’s two-color version set up in Salt Lake City circa 1912, James Hoge’s system (US patent #1,251,666) installed in Cleveland by the American Traffic Signal Company in 1914, and William Potts’ 4-way red-yellow-green lights introduced in Detroit beginning in 1920. New York City traffic towers began flashing three-color signals also in 1920.
Garrett Morgan’s cross-shaped, crank-operated semaphore was not among the first half-hundred patented traffic signals, nor was it “automatic” as is sometimes claimed, nor did it play any part in the evolution of the modern traffic light. For details see Inventing History: Garrett Morgan and the Traffic Signal.
- Gas Mask
- Garrett Morgan in 1914? No!
The invention of the gas mask predates Morgan’s breathing device by several decades. Early versions were constructed by the Scottish chemist John Stenhouse in 1854 and the physicist John Tyndall in the 1870s, among many other inventors prior to World War I. See The Invention of the Gas Mask.
- Peanut Butter
- George Washington Carver (who began his peanut research in 1903)? No!
Peanuts, which are native to the New World tropics, were mashed into paste by Aztecs hundreds of years ago. Evidence of modern peanut butter comes from US patent #306727 issued to Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal, Quebec in 1884, for a process of milling roasted peanuts between heated surfaces until the peanuts reached “a fluid or semi-fluid state.” As the product cooled, it set into what Edson described as “a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment.” In 1890, George A. Bayle Jr., owner of a food business in St. Louis, manufactured peanut butter and sold it out of barrels. J.H. Kellogg, of cereal fame, secured US patent #580787 in 1897 for his “Process of Preparing Nutmeal,” which produced a “pasty adhesive substance” that Kellogg called “nut-butter.”