Unsung Heroes


Granville T. Woods invented a telegraph system for train engineers that revolutionized train safety, but it didn’t make him rich and famous. Instead of profiting from the 1887 invention (and numerous others), Woods, an African American, died in poverty, a virtual unknown.

“Engineering Change: The World of the African-American Inventor,” on view at the California African-American Museum, gives recognition to Woods and other African American inventors who have long been denied their due, putting them in the context of a society that was quick to capitalize on their products but reluctant to acknowledge those who created them.

“Engineering Change” is organized into three themed sections--"Light and Motion,” “Female African-American Inventors and Scientists” and “Mathematics, Space and Beyond"--each of which represents a future exhibition at the museum that will greatly expand on the ideas presented in the current exhibition. Each exhibition will run for two years.


“Light and Motion,” the most effective of the three sections, spotlights several inventors, including Woods and Elijah McCoy, known more today for his name’s contribution to the American lexicon (“the real McCoy”) than for his scientific genius.

McCoy, the exhibition explains, changed the nature of train travel with a number of inventions pertaining to engine lubrication. It may be tempting to think that this is a concept difficult for kids to grasp. But today’s science-savvy students, who on a recent trip to the museum included second-graders from St. Mark’s School in Altadena, have no problem understanding the concept as it is presented in the clear and concise audio displays.

“McCoy’s invention made it so that fuel could go to all parts of a train and they wouldn’t have to stop all the time,” St. Mark’s student Daniel McLaughlin said matter-of-factly. This made for more efficient and less expensive train travel, museum educator Keith Jackson added.

Perhaps the harder lesson is this: Even though attempts to duplicate the African American inventor’s creations spawned demands for “the real McCoy,” McCoy had to sign away rights to this and other inventions. He, too, died penniless.

Although both McCoy and Woods held patents for their inventions, as African Americans struggling against discrimination in the post-Civil War era, they had to spend undue time and money protecting those patents in court, the exhibition explains. In addition to struggling for racial equality, they had to fight for full recognition as inventors.

But things were even worse in pre-Civil War America, when enslaved African Americans were not allowed to hold patents. The exhibition touches on the spirit of innovation that nevertheless existed. For example, Jo Anderson, a slave on the plantation of Cyrus McCormick, made significant contributions to the invention of the first grain reaping machine.

“But he couldn’t get a patent because [as a slave] he was only considered half a person,” St. Mark’s student Sydni Chambers said. (Slaves were actually counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress, according to the pre-Civil War Constitution. Since they were not citizens, slaves could not enter into patent agreements with the U.S. government).

Female African American inventors--the subject of the exhibition’s second section (and of a separate exhibition opening in 2001)--faced the hardest battle: gender discrimination in addition to racial discrimination and resistance to new ideas.

Nevertheless, African American women did invent, mostly things to ease their domestic burdens. Sarah E. Goode designed the folding cabinet bed in 1885, a precursor to today’s sofa bed, and Sarah Boone patented her ironing board in 1892 to be used in “ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies garments.”

“Mathematics, Space and Beyond,” the third and final section of the exhibition, is the least effective of the three. Devoted to the modern inventions of African Americans, it seemed a bit more difficult for the second-graders, at least, to grasp. Of course, technological advances pertaining to cataract surgery and computer programs designed to create realistic visual effects, such as the Tom Hanks-John F. Kennedy handshake in “Forrest Gump,” are more difficult to explain--even to adults.

“Mathematics” will be the theme of the final exhibition, which will open in 2003.


“Engineering Change: The World of the African-American Inventor,” California African-American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park. (213) 744-7432. Free. Ends April 19.