Science and Technology: African Inventors in the Americas

Inventor Jan Ernst Matzeliger
Inventor Jan Ernst Matzeliger (September 15, 1852 – August 24, 1889)

AFRICANGLOBE – We learn very little about inventors of African descent. The inventors highlighted here include different types of inventors: independent, corporate and government inventors from the Americas.

Many of the inventions involved agricultural and food preparation processes. The drive to make the food production process more efficient after the abolition of slavery in the Americas was not lost on these innovators.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo,Suriname (then Dutch Guyana). Matzeliger’s mother was an Afrian born woman  into the Dutch slave society of Dutch Guyana. His father was a wealthy Dutch engineer.

Matzeliger came to the United States and settled into the New England region where he developed the shoe-lasting machine invention that assembled the upper shoe to the sole, receiving U.S. Patent No. 459,899 on September 22, 1891 — an innovation that greatly increased efficiency in the shoe production process. Additional U.S. patents received by Matzeliger include the following:

  • 274,207, 3/20/1883, Automatic method for lasting shoe
  • 421,954, 2/25/1890, Nailing machine
  • 423,937, 3/25/1890, Tack separating and distributing mechanism
  • 415,726, 11/26/1899, Mechanism for distributing tacks, nails, etc.
Inventor Norbert Rillieux Sugar Works
Patent image of Norbert Rillieux’s Improvement in Sugar Works.

Norbert Rillieux was born into privilege in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of a wealthy Creole mother and a White father who was an engineer. Rillieux and his brother were educated in France. By 1830, Rillieux was teaching applied mechanics at the École Centrale in Paris.

When Rillieux returned to Louisiana, there was a growing demand to replace the dangerous “Jamaica Train” sugar manufacturing process. Rillieux developed a steam-driven process for making the sweet grainy substance. His U.S. patents include the following:

  • 3,237, 8/26/1843, Improvement in sugar works
  • 4,879, 12/10/1846, Sugar processing evaporator

Shelby J. Davidson was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1868 and graduated from Howard University and would read law and become admitted into the DC bar and Kentucky bar.

Shelby J. Davidson became a government inventor and worked with the United States Treasury Department where he invented adding machine automations that increased the postal division’s efficiency. Shelby J. Davidson received U.S. Patent No. 884,721 on April 14, 1908 for what is described as a paper-rewind mechanism for adding machines.

In 1912, Shelby J. Davidson resigned with the government amid disputes arising from Davidson’s rights to the adding machine. He practiced law and entered into the real estate market.

Alexander P. Ashbourne received patent no. 170,460 for designing a unique biscuit cutter on November 30, 1875. Alexander P. Ashbourne’s cookie cutter innovated on the variety of shapes available for biscuits, cakes or cookies. The invention involved a plate, roller and springs system whereby the cutters presses down on the dough or batter into optional shapes. Ashbourne also obtained U.S. patents for various agricultural related patents described below:

  • 163,962 (1875), Process for preparing coconut for domestic use
  • 194,287 (1877), Process of treating coconut 1877, no.
  • 230,518 (1880), Refining coconut oil
Inventor Granville Woods
Inventor Granville Woods

Granville T. Woods focused his innovation in the area of railway electronic communication systems. On June 3, 1884, Woods received his first patent. This was for an improved steam-boiler furnace, U.S. Patent No. 299,894.

Subsequently, Alexander Graham Bell’s company would purchase the rights to his telegraphony patent, a device that allowed a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. The relationship with the Bell company enabled Woods to become a full-time inventor. Woods would go on to receive another patent for an automatic air brake, which is used to slow and stop trains.

John Standard obtained U.S. Patent No. 455,891. Born July 1891, John Standard was born in New Jersey. He improved on the original icebox by putting cold air-ducts or holds in special areas to help the air circulate within the icebox in order to keep foods fresher.

His invention also provided a special place to keep the drinking water and other drinks separate from the food. This avoided liquids picking up the flavors and smells of other foods the precursor to the modern refrigerator.

Part Two