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Black inventors: everyday items

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From the world’s first mailbox to the widely-used hairbrush, the contributions of black inventors have left a lasting impact on modern society. Despite facing systemic obstacles, black inventors have managed to overcome adversity and create groundbreaking technologies that have improved the lives of millions of people.

As a part of our Black History Month series, we may not have focused on the world’s most groundbreaking inventions (although potato chips are awesome, right?), but here are a few of our favorites.

Lonnie Johnson – Super soaker

Now, the invention of the water gun definitely came about a long time before Lonnie Johnson was even born, but he is responsible for the invention of the pressurized Nerf Super soaker.

Johnson developed the first prototype of the Super Soaker in 1982 while working as a NASA engineer. He was inspired to create a more powerful and efficient water gun after experimenting with pressurized water systems in his backyard. The Super Soaker became a huge success and has since become one of the most recognizable and widely used toys in the world. 

Today, Johnson continues to innovate in the field of energy technology and is known for his commitment to using his inventions to make a positive impact on the world.

Lyda D. Newman – Hairbrush

We don’t know too much about Lyda D. Newman’s personal life, but we do know that she was an Ohio woman, born in the late 1800s.

She is best known for her invention of a hairbrush with synthetic bristles. Prior to Newman’s invention, hairbrushes were made with natural materials, such as boar bristles, which could cause irritation and breakage.

Newman’s patented hairbrush, patented in 1898, was made with synthetic bristles made of celluloid. The synthetic bristles were gentle on the hair and scalp and helped prevent breakage and damage. This invention revolutionized the hair care industry, making it possible for people with curly and coily hair types to style and maintain their hair without causing damage.

After inventing her patented creation, Lyda became involved in the suffragist movement in the early 1900s and dedicated her efforts to promoting the cause in New York City. As a result of her activism, she was among the first women in the city to win the right to vote in 1920.

Osbourn Dorsey – Doorknob

Most of us probably can’t imagine a life without doorknobs. In the late 1800s, Osbourn Dorsey submitted a patent for improvements on the door-latching mechanism, which marked a significant shift from the previous latch-string systems that could only be unlocked from the inside. While keyed locks were used by wealthier individuals, they were often too costly for the average person. Dorsey’s invention, the doorknob, made it possible for everyone to have access to a more convenient and secure way to enter their homes.

Philip B. Downing – Mailbox & operating street railway switches

Philip B. Downing was a renowned African American inventor from Providence, Rhode Island. He was most famous for his two most important inventions, the street letter box and the operating street railway switches. Philip spent much of his career working as a postal clerk in Boston, Massachusetts, retiring in 1927 after over 30 years of service. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Philip filed at least five patents with the United States Patent Office, with the street letter box and the operating street railway switches being his most well-known creations.

George Speck –  Potato chips (Honorary mention)

Unfortunately, the invention of the potato chip, or “crisp” to those of us living in ol’ Blighty, cannot be attributed to just one person. You may have read that New York chef, George Speck invented the chip in the late 1800s after a customer at the restaurant where he worked kept sending his potatoes back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick and not crispy enough. Rumor has it, instead of tossing the potatoes in the bin, George sliced them thin, fried them to a crisp, and added salt. The customer loved the new preparation and thus, the potato chip was born. But that’s exactly what it was – a rumor! 

There was also a rumor that it wasn’t George at all, but his sister, Catherine Wicks, who had accidentally knocked some potato chippings into a pan of fat and inadvertently created the potato chip. There is still no solid evidence to back this either.

George may not have invented the potato chip, but he definitely helped popularize it in the Upstate New York area. 

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Nicki Faulkner
Nicki Faulkner

Nicki works in engagement & wellbeing at Snowplow and keeps the team feeling happy and connected to the team. Posts include mental health, LGBT+ topics and daily life behind the scenes at Snowplow.

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