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3 More African American Inventors and How Their Inventions Changed the World

Mar 12, 2018 12:00 AM

The mid-19th century and the early 20th century were years of America’s industrialization. Many factories were already built, and the Continental Railroad was near completion. However, many advances in the transportation industry were just beginning. Entertainment was on the rise, and new inventions were underway to reach more audiences with the shows and plays of the day.

So, who were the African American inventors that contributed to these scientific inventions? They were, Elijah McCoy, Frederick Jones, and James West.

Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 in Kentucky. He and his parents escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad and settled in Ontario, Canada. When Elijah was a teenager, his parents sent him to a school in Scotland for mechanical engineering. Upon completion of his studies, he returned to the States but was not able to find work as an engineer. Unfortunately, racism was prevalent and regardless of his excellent training, employers were not willing to hire negro engineers. In 1847, the McCoy family moved back to the US and decided to establish themselves in Michigan. Elijah was married twice, and both of his wives passed away suddenly. He and his second wife were in a car accident, which led to her death, and Elijah suffered injuries that he never recovered from. Mr. McCoy did not have any children and passed away in 1929 at 85 years old.

Mr. McCoy was interested in mechanics and soon found a position with the Michigan Central Railroad company as a maintenance worker, primarily an Oiler. His responsibility was to oil the gears and other moving parts of the trains. Back then, the trains needed to stop for this service because the lubricating oil wore off. When this happened, it caused friction on the mechanisms; the trains rode rough and did not provide the passengers with a smooth ride. During his time with the railroad, he invented an oiler that automatically released oil on the axles and wheel bearings so that the trains could travel further and did not need to stop for maintenance. Many other men tried to design similar inventions, but they were not as good as Mr. McCoy’s. according to (, Elijah’s patented his invention which became popular with other railroad companies, and when they wanted one of his devices, the owners would ask for the “Real McCoy.” To this day, his invention is standard on locomotives and other train equipment. Elijah McCoy patented over 50 inventions throughout his lifetime.

Another mechanical engineer, by the name of Frederick Jones, was born in Ohio in 1893. Frederick was of mixed race. His father was white and his mother negro. Frederick had a troubled childhood filled with trials. When he was little, his mother abandoned the family, and his father struggled to raise him on his own. Eventually, when Fred was only 7 years old, he was sent to live with a priest in Kentucky. His father died, and Mr. Jones’ returned to Ohio when he was just 11 years old. Unfortunately, the youngster didn’t have much education and found his way doing odd jobs for people. Eventually, he landed a job as a janitor for an auto repair shop and soon learned how to be a mechanic. Because of his excellent skills, he was promoted to foreman. In 1912, Mr. Jones settled in Minnesota and worked on a farm as a mechanic. Mr. Jones received over 60 patents for his discoveries, many of which were to improve refrigeration techniques. In 1944, Mr. Jones was the first African American nominated for the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. Frederick became sick with lung cancer and died in 1961. In 1991, President Bush presented Fred’s widow with the National Medal of Technology Award. Frederick Jones was the first African American to receive such an honor. Finally, in 1977, Mr. Jones was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame.

Fred loved tinkering and learned all he could about mechanical and electrical engineering, and in 1923, he received his engineering license. He designed a radio transmitter, as well as an instrument that combined motion pictures and sound. But these are not the creations he is known for. Mr. Jones’ most significant invention was in the early 1930’s, and it was the refrigerated unit for trucks. After he patented his discovery, he worked with Mr. Numero, and they started the US Thermo Control Company. During WWII, their trucks were used to transport blood, perishable foods, and medicine to our armed forces. Mr. Jones received over 60 patents for his discoveries, many of which were to improve refrigeration.

James West was born in Virginia in 1931. There is not much information about his early family life, but he was always curious about what was inside a machine and enjoyed taking things apart to discover how they worked. As a young teen, he knew that he wanted to pursue science and electricity. James enrolled at Temple University and studied physics. During this time, he was also an intern at Bell Labs in the Acoustics Research Department. Four years later, Mr. West graduated from Temple and began his full-time career at Bell Labs. In 1997, James became the president-elect for the Acoustical Society of America. He also became a member of the National Academy of Engineering the following year. Mr. West retired from Bell Labs in 2001 and started teaching as a research professor at John Hopkins School of Engineering. Today, James contributes to his community and those around him by sharing his knowledge and understanding.

While working at Bell Labs, James teamed up with Gerhard Sessler, and in 1960, they designed the first compact microphone. The instrument included the intricate details of the electret transducers, and it was completed by 1962. This small microphone became the industry standard, and over 90% of all microphones use this technology. Some of these tiny microphones are included in video recorders, telephones, hearing aids, and baby monitors. Mr. West has received over 250 patents for his inventions and is well-known for his writings in scientific journals and books.

These men endured difficult childhoods that would make some people cringe. But they persevered, overcame the challenges that life threw at them and recognized their interests and abilities. They all faced racism, and they didn’t let it stop them from achieving their dreams and pursuing their goals. These are examples of reputable, diligent men who enjoyed their jobs and made a positive impact on the world.

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