When Discussing Black Inventors …

black inventors, inventions, Black History Month, African-American
Clockwise from top left: Benjamin Banneker, Madame C.J. Walker, George Washington Carver, Dr. Shirley Jackson, and  Dr. Daniel Hale Williams.

Since this is Black History Month, so I would like to devote each Write Anything Wednesday post to black history. (You can view last week’s post here if you haven’t had the chance to read it yet.) This week, I wanted to take a look at a black inventor by the name of Daniel Hale Williams, but I realized I needed to first look at an overarching problem that exists when discussing black inventors.

This post was partly inspired by a couple of things I read a few years ago. On another blog, I read a short story entitled “Life Without Black People,” or something similar. But I had already read a story like that sometime before.

However, one person who responded to the post left a link to a thorough refutation of many of the claims made in the story. (Incidentally, that’s how I was first introduced to Snopes.com.) The Snopes post was eye-opening, but I didn’t want to read the message at first.

How Did the Story Go?

Without given much away, I will say the story starts with a boy named Theo, who asked his mom what life would be like if there were no black people. Theo follows his mother around for the day and they soon realize how difficult life would be without the inventions made by black people.

Black inventors mentioned in the story are (inventions in parentheses):

  • William Barry (the postmarking and canceling machine)
  • Sarah Boone (the ironing board)
  • Charles Brooks (the street sweeper)
  • John Burr (the lawn mower)
  • Lee Burridge (the typewriting machine)
  • Philip Downing (the letter drop mailbox)
  • Charles Drew (discovered a way to preserve and store blood; started first blood bank in the world)
  • Joseph Gammel (the supercharge system for internal combusting engines)
  • Frederick Jones (the air conditioner)
  • Lewis Howard Latimer (the filament within the light bulb)
  • John Love (the pencil sharpener)
  • A. Lovette (the advanced printing press)
  • Jan E. Matzeliger (the shoe lasting machine)
  • Alexander Miles (the elevator)
  • Garrett A. Morgan (the traffic light)
  • Lydia O. Newman (the brush)
  • Alice Parker (the heating furnace)
  • William Purvis (the fountain pen)
  • Lloyd P. Ray (the dustpan)
  • Elbert R. Robinson (the trolley)
  • Walter Sammongs (the comb)
  • George T. Samon (the clothes dryer)
  • Richard Spikes (the automatic gearshift)
  • John Standard (the refrigerator)
  • Thomas W. Stewart (the mop)
  • Madam C. J. Walker (hair care products)
  • Daniel Hale Williams (the first open heart surgery)

What Did I Find in the Snopes Post?

As it turns out, there is more than one version of the story floating around like the one I read. The post by David Mikkelson shares three versions of a short story involved around teaching people about black inventions.

The first story involves a group of white people who want to see what the world would look like without blacks.

The second version is the same one I read (which can be found on Philip Emeagwali’s website).

A third story has someone named Uchechi talking to God. Uchechi is led by God to see what the world would look like without inventions made by black people.

In the first story, many, if not all of the black inventors’ names found in the second version are included, but Joseph Smith (the lawn sprinkler), Lewis Latimer (not “Later” — the electric lamp), Michael Harvey (the lantern), and Granville T. Woods (the automatic cut off switch) are added. Also, the land in the first story is uncultivated because there would have been no (black) slaves in the first 200 years of the United States.

Mikkelson points out the inaccuracies from the stories, while confirming bits that are accurate. He also adds some more information about extra inventions from African-Americans mentioned that most people aren’t aware of.

What’s the Takeaway from the Snopes Post?

Mikkelson makes a lot of good points in the article. For one thing, the fact that someone may feel the need to exaggerate diminishes the accomplishments. Also, other accomplishments from the same people being praised are being ignored. Additionally, there are more black inventors who are being ignored.

Knowing that, it really stresses the importance of independent research. When you find a story like the ones I’ve mentioned, it helps to take notes and vet the information. It’s especially true when those stories are shared via email, social media, and word-of-mouth. Even information on a fact-checking site like Snopes is open to be fact-checked.

Would You Like to Know More About Black Inventors?

I certainly do and the Snopes post is a good place to start compiling a list.

I especially want to do further research because of the passage of time. The post was published a few years ago (in 2011), and at the time, it was hard to find information on the black inventors and innovators. Since then, I have found some links on Michael Harvey, for example.

Two people I would like to visit this month are Daniel Hale Williams, who a mentioned at the top, and Madame C.J. Walker.

Works Cited

“A World Without Black People.” Philip Emeagwali. <http://emeagwali.com/african-american/inventors/world-without-african-american-inventors.html>.

Mikkelson, David. “Life Without Black People.” Snopes.com. 24 May 2011. Web. Retrieved 8 Feb 2017. <http://www.snopes.com/business/origins/blackinv.asp>.


4 thoughts on “When Discussing Black Inventors …

  1. I was rather amazed to see a family name in your listing. Alice H Parker was my mother’s second cousin. part of the family that was ‘never spoken of” and I didn’t learn about the connection until Mom passed away ten years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s amazing that when I taught history, very few blacks on the list were embedded in the textbook. I reject the idea that any group – white, black, Latin,, Indian.. should be given preferential treatment in coverage of history.


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