INSIDE Chico State
0 March 9, 2000
Volume 30 Number 15
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From Gas Masks to Stop Lights:
Black Inventions Museum

Bintou Cowan coordinates the tour of the Black Inventions Museum of innovative contributions of people of African American heritage. (photo RL)
Bintou Cowan coordinates the tour of the Black Inventions Museum of innovative contributions of people of African American heritage. (photo RL)

In celebration of Black History Month, the Department of Engineering hosted the Black Inventions Museum on February 18 in Trinity Hall. Celebrating its tenth anniversary as a mobile display, the Black Inventions Museum presents the scientific and industrial inventions of African people throughout the world.

Its main purpose, according to tour coordinator Bintou Cowan, is to promote positive images and the self-esteem of all nationalities, as well as the innovative contributions of people of African heritage from ancient civilizations to the present.

"The museum highlights all black Americans and shows the world we're more than just song and dance and sports," Cowan said. "Our contributions are global, used every day, and also inspire others."

Founded in 1988 by black author Lady Sala S. Shabazz, the museum has toured at over 350 events nationally and internationally.

It started with a poster on an easel. Shabazz, author of The Kwanzaa Coloring Book and The Flags of the African People, sold her books from a table at various marketplaces. She also displayed a poster showcasing the creations of several black inventors, which grew to two tables and eventually a touring museum. A permanent site was opened on August 2 in Ghana, West Africa.

According to the display, two of the earliest black men to receive patents were Thomas L. Jennings, who invented the "dry scouring of clothes" in 1821, and Henry Blair, who created a seed planter in 1834 and a cotton planter in 1836.

Two of the earliest black women to receive patents were Sarah E. Goode in 1885 for a folding cabinet bed, and Miriam E. Benjamin in 1888 for a gong and signal chair for hotels and boarding houses.

Their contributions were publicized because of Henry Baker. An inventor himself, Baker was responsible for the accurate recordings of the inventions and contributors of African Americans, at a time when no one else thought it was necessary.

Baker, a graduate of Harvard University Law School, rose to the position of second assistant examiner in the patent office. During his employment, Baker devoted his time to compiling four large volumes of actual patent drawings of inventions he knew were patented by black men and women.

Racism prevented Baker from recording many of the inventions held by black patentees. When Baker wrote to many of the inventors he was told that acknowledging the fact that the inventors were black would affect the commercial value of their invention. Baker could not list all of the black inventors of the 1800s, but he never concluded his research in that field.

The computer age brought a flare-up of related overuse injuries, including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Inventor Joseph Young responded with the recent invention of the A-Q-Stimu-Sage. The device is the size of a computer wrist-rest, composed of tiny balls that move when rubbed against the wrists and hands.

Other inventions have become important features of society. Garrett A. Morgan, born in Kentucky in 1875, owned a sewing machine retail and repair shop. His work inspired him to invent the first gas inhalator. He received a patent in 1914, and during World War II, the army transformed his inhalator into a gas mask for combat troops.

In 1923, after witnessing a dramatic accident between an automobile and a horse and carriage, Morgan invented the traffic signal, the forerunner of what is used today. He sold the device to General Electric for $40,000.

Other creations, including Valerie L. Thomas' "Illusion Transmitter," may become household names in the future. Created in 1980, the device is a three-dimensional system for transmitting the illusion of an object. The application may soon be as common as televisions and computers. -- RL


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