Black inventors’ contributions hidden by racism

Without understanding the largely hidden history of African Americans, it is impossible to understand the real history of the United States.

The great wealth of the United States and much of the western world was built on a foundation of unpaid and super-exploited labor. The enslavement of African people and the ruthless exploitation of Africa, Latin America and Asia, as Karl Marx pointed out in his great work, “Capital,” laid the basis for capitalism to become the dominant world system during the 18th and 19th centuries.

No chapter of African American history is more hidden than the role of Black inventors and scientists. Most often, their achievements were appropriated by white entrepreneurs, becoming the source of immense profits for others. For some inventors who were slaves, their owners claimed credit.

It is true, of course, that many white scientists’ discoveries were also appropriated by capitalist ownership. But most egregious in the scientific field is the denial of Black scientists to their rightful place in history.

Benjamin Banneker: clock and almanac

George Washington Carver

The prevailing racist culture could not—and still does not—allow Black scientists and engineers to be credited with their invaluable contributions.

Few people know that the first clock made in the United States, which kept accurate time for 40 years, made entirely of wood, was produced by a Black man in the early 18th century. His name was Benjamin Banneker.

Born into a free family in 1731 in the colony of Maryland, Banneker led an outstanding life of keen observation and achievements, among them the most accurate almanac of its time.

From self-taught astronomical calculations using his handmade clock, he wrote a book predicting storms and seasonal patterns and recommending sowing times. The almanac became widely used throughout the early United States.



The test of his astronomical prowess came when Banneker forecast a solar eclipse for April 14, 1789. In doing so, he contradicted the two most renowned astronomers of the day, who said no such eclipse would occur. On that day, the sky darkened at precisely the time he forecast.

But another Benjamin, surnamed Franklin, is the one known in U.S. history for his almanac, although he did not make his own astronomical calculations.

These are only two of Banneker’s contributions. Until recently, there has been no statue or monument to Benjamin Banneker in the United States. A monument to him is finally due for completion in 2010 in Washington, D.C.

George Washington Carver

Black scientists of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries were largely self-educated. Institutionalized racism denied them entrance to primary schools, not to mention higher levels of learning.

George Washington Carver, whose discoveries revolutionized agriculture, is the best known African American scientist, especially in the South. His botanical discoveries and inventions rescued farmers from ruin when he recommended the use of nitrate-producing legumes to combat soil exhaustion from growing cotton.

Most schoolchildren can recite one of his most celebrated contributions, the production of hundreds of products from peanuts. But the hardships he endured as a child are almost unknown.

Born into slavery in 1864 in Missouri, Carver’s mother and sister were kidnapped by nightriders along with Carver as an infant. His mother and sister were separated from him, and he never saw them again.

Agricultural advances

Carver’s deep insight into botany came from his wonderment of plants in the fields around his home. Carver best described his love of plants as a young boy: “And many were the tears I had shed because I would break the roots or flowers of some of my pets while removing them from the ground, and strange to say all sorts of vegetation seemed to thrive under my touch. … At this time I had never heard of botany and could scarcely read.”

Because formal school was not available for Black people in that part of Missouri, Carver left on foot to find a school eight miles away at the age of 10, and later went to Kansas. Through his primary, secondary and college studies, Carver paid for school through various jobs, such as a janitor and a cook, graduating at the age of 20 from high school.

In his 47 years’ teaching at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes in Alabama, Carver showed Southern farmers how to rotate crops from the nitrate-replenishing plants like peanuts, clover and peas with cotton.

For Carver’s hundreds of scientific discoveries, he sought only three patents, preferring to use his knowledge to help society. Many hundreds of African American students learned at his side in Tuskegee.

The accomplishments of this renowned African American scientist made some Southern white farmers much more prosperous, while brutal racism kept Black people oppressed.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams: the first open-heart surgery

Capitalism has reduced important medical innovations, techniques and discoveries to a means for making greater profit.

Today, complex heart operations and transplants enable human beings to survive, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars.

Yet, the first successful open-heart surgery, in 1893, was performed by a Black physician, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, in the first interracial U.S. hospital, which he created to serve the African American population of Chicago.

Until his feat, performed without benefit of anesthesia or blood transfusion, no doctor had dared to open the chest cavity through surgery. The operation, on a young Black man named James Cornish who worked in the Chicago stockyards, was done in the hospital that Williams established just two years earlier in 1891.

The very year of his groundbreaking operation, the capitalist depression of 1893 almost closed down his hospital. Inspired by Frederick Douglass’s personal appeal, many people came forth with donations to keep the center open. Later that year, Dr. Williams made medical history.

Jan Matzeliger: revolution in shoe production

Before Jan Matzeliger’s invention of the shoe-lasting machine, which he perfected in 1883, the tedious labor time invested in each shoe meant that manufactured footwear was inaccessible to many people due to the high cost of production.

A poor young man who earned a meager living working days in a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts, Matzeliger was convinced by his observations of the hand-sewing function called shoe-lasting, that he could invent a machine to sew the tops of shoes to the sole.

For six months, he labored at night using rudimentary materials to design the machine. He barely ate enough to subsist, instead putting his money into his inventive work.

After his machine was approved for patent, its use swept the shoe industry and increased the production of shoe workers by ten times.

Matzeliger soon developed tuberculosis because of his poor diet and strenuous life, and he died six years later at the age of 37. In Lynn, he was denied membership in the Catholic, Episcopal and Unitarian churches because he was Black. He bequeathed much of his invention’s stock to the only church that admitted him, the North Congregational Church.

The shoe-lasting machine is considered one of the greatest inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Shoes are much more available to the world’s people because of Matzeliger’s genius and sacrifice, but corporations like Nike and Reebok accumulate billions in profits, paying workers pennies per shoe.

Honor Black innovators

Hundreds of inventions and discoveries of African Americans merit public honor in the United States: the synthesis of cortisone by Dr. Percy Julian; the multi-stage evaporating system which revolutionized sugar production by Norbert Rillieux of New Orleans; the first successful gas mask in 1914, used by firefighters throughout the country, by Garrett A. Morgan; several machine lubricating systems by Elijah McCoy, whose fame prompted the phrase, “Is it the real McCoy?” to signify high quality.

These African American innovators, and many others, often labored without financial or social reward. They are still mostly unrecognized, having been denied credit and omitted from history. Their achievements have benefited all humanity through the higher development that was achieved. But their monumental contributions are especially noteworthy because of the huge societal obstacles that Black scientists and inventors have had to overcome.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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