I apologise profusely for destroying the reputation of those (like one "Black Coffee") citing inventions by African-Americans. Actually - no, that's also a myth. I enjoyed it. Care of this source. From the extent of this list it is then fair to conclude that the number of myths is directly proportional to the level of delusion displayed by such inDUHviduals.
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 black history. 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 Black History 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.
- 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-colour 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-colour 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."
- George Washington Carver
- "Discovered" hundreds of new and important uses for the peanut? Fathered the peanut industry? Revolutionized southern US agriculture? No!
Research by Barry Mackintosh, who served as bureau historian for the National Park Service (which manages the G.W. Carver National Monument), demonstrated the following:
- Most of Carver's peanut and sweet potato creations were either unoriginal, impractical, or of uncertain effectiveness. No product born in his laboratory was widely adopted.
- The boom years for Southern peanut production came prior to, and not as a result of, Carver's promotion of the crop.
- Carver's work to improve regional farming practices was not of pioneering scientific importance and had little demonstrable impact.
- Automatic Lubricator, "Real McCoy"
- Elijah McCoy revolutionized industry in 1872 by inventing the first device to automatically oil machinery? No! The phrase "Real McCoy" arose to distinguish Elijah's inventions from cheap imitations? No!
The oil cup, which automatically delivers a steady trickle of lubricant to machine parts while the machine is running, predates McCoy's career; a description of one appears in the May 6, 1848 issue of Scientific American. The automatic "displacement lubricator" for steam engines was developed in 1860 by John Ramsbottom of England, and notably improved in 1862 by James Roscoe of the same country. The "hydrostatic" lubricator originated no later than 1871.
Variants of the phrase Real McCoy appear in Scottish literature dating back to at least 1856 — well before Elijah McCoy could have been involved.
Detailed evidence: The not-so-real McCoy
Also see The Fake McCoy and Did Somebody Say McTrash?
- Blood Bank
- Dr. Charles Drew in 1940? No!
During World War I, Dr. Oswald H. Robertson of the US army preserved blood in a citrate-glucose solution and stored it in cooled containers for later transfusion. This was the first use of "banked" blood. By the mid-1930s the Russians had set up a national network of facilities for the collection, typing, and storage of blood. Bernard Fantus, influenced by the Russian program, established the first hospital blood bank in the United States at Chicago's Cook County Hospital in 1937. It was Fantus who coined the term "blood bank." See highlights of transfusion history from the American Association of Blood Banks.
- Blood Plasma
- Did Charles Drew "discover" (in about 1940) that plasma could be separated and stored apart from the rest of the blood, thereby revolutionizing transfusion medicine? No!
The possibility of using blood plasma for transfusion purposes was known at least since 1918, when English physician Gordon R. Ward suggested it in a medical journal. In the mid-1930s, John Elliott advanced the idea, emphasizing plasma's advantages in shelf life and donor-recipient compatibility, and in 1939 he and two colleagues reported having used stored plasma in 191 transfusions. (See historical notes on plasma use.) Charles Drew was not responsible for any breakthrough scientific or medical discovery; his main career achievement lay in supervising or co-supervising major programs for the collection and shipment of blood and plasma.
More: Charles Drew Mythology
- Washington DC city plan
- Benjamin Banneker? No!
Pierre-Charles L'Enfant created the layout of Washington DC. Banneker assisted Andrew Ellicott in the survey of the federal territory, but played no direct role in the actual planning of the city. The story of Banneker reconstructing the city design from memory after L'Enfant ran away with the plans (with the implication that the project would have failed if not for Banneker) has been debunked by historians.
- Filament for Light Bulb
- Lewis Latimer invented the carbon filament in 1881 or 1882? No!
English chemist/physicist Joseph Swan experimented with a carbon-filament incandescent light all the way back in 1860, and by 1878 had developed a better design which he patented in Britain. On the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Edison developed a successful carbon-filament bulb, receiving a patent for it (#223898) in January 1880, before Lewis Latimer did any work in electric lighting. From 1880 onward, countless patents were issued for innovations in filament design and manufacture (Edison had over 50 of them). Neither of Latimer's two filament-related patents in 1881 and 1882 were among the most important innovations, nor did they make the light bulb last longer, nor is there reason to believe they were adopted outside Hiram Maxim's company where Latimer worked at the time. (He was not hired by Edison's company until 1884, primarily as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigations).
Latimer also did not come up with the first screw socket for the light bulb or the first book on electric lighting.
- The list continues...