Black Invention Myths

You've heard the claims before: Were it not for the genius and energy of African-American inventors, we would all have to live without the traffic signal, the gas mask, the light bulb filament, dozens of common household items and other assorted technological contrivances that make our world go 'round.

Many such beliefs originate from historical records of patents issued to African Americans. The people who compile the records or present them in popular form often fail to understand that hundreds or even thousands of patented variations may exist for any type of invention. As a result, the specific versions patented by the black inventors end up being mistaken for the "firsts" of their general type.

Unfortunately some of the mistakes have been creeping into mainstream books and websites, and occasionally pop up in newspaper articles and TV segments especially during Black History Month. There is a possibility, as the catalog of errors is repeated, that the historical myths will eclipse the true history. Thus I decided to publish here to put some records straight.

Each invention below is listed with the supposed black originator beneath it along with the year it was supposedly invented. This is followed by something about the real origin of the invention, or at least an earlier instance of it.

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Air Brake
Granville Woods in 1904? No!

In 1869, a 22-year-old George Westinghouse received US patent #88929 for an air brake and in the same year organized the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Many of the 361 patents he accumulated during his career were for air brake variations and improvements.

Air Conditioner
Black invention? NO!

Willis Carrier built the first system to simultaneously control the temperature and humidity of air. He received the first of many patents in 1906 (U.S. patent #808897, for the "Apparatus for Treating Air"). In 1911 he published the formulae which became the scientific basis for A/C design, and formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915.

J.F. Pickering in 1900? NO!

Henri Giffard invented the powered navigable airship in 1852. The La France airship built by Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs in 1884 featured an electric motor and improved steering capabilities. In 1900 Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's first rigid-framed airship took to the air. Of the hundreds of inventors granted patents for early airship designs and variations, few succeeded in building or flying their craft. There doesn't appear to be any record of a "Pickering Airship" ever getting off the ground.

Aviation Patent Database, 1799-1909

Automatic Transmission
Richard Spikes in 1932? NO!

The first automatic-transmission automobile to go into production was made by the Sturtevant brothers in 1904. US Patent #766551 was the first of several patents on their system. Automatic transmission technology continued to develop, spawning hundreds of patents and numerous experimental units; but because of cost, reliability issues and lack of demand, several decades passed before automatic-transmission vehicles became widespread.

Bicycle Frame
Isaac R. Johnson in 1899? NO!

Comte Mede de Sivrac and Karl von Sauerbronn built primitive versions of the bicycle in 1791 and 1816 respectively. The frame of John Starley's 1885 "safety bicycle" was hardly distinguishable from that of a modern bicycle.

Blood Bank
Dr. Charles Drew in 1940? NO! Although Drew was a leading authority on blood storage and transport, and led a major blood collection program during World War II, he was not responsible for the first blood banks.

1932: The first blood bank is established in a Leningrad hospital.

1937: Bernard Fantus, director of therapeutics at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago, establishes the first hospital blood bank in the United States. In creating a hospital laboratory that can preserve and store donor blood, Fantus originates the term "blood bank." Within a few years, hospital and community blood banks begin to be established across the United States. Some of the earliest are in San Francisco, New York, Miami, and Cincinnati.

source: American Association of Blood Banks (

Nor was Drew the first to separate plasma from whole blood. MORE...

Blood Transfusion
Charles Drew in the 20th century? NO!

The long history of blood transfusion goes back at least to the 1600s. One of the most important advances was Karl Landsteiner's discovery of ABO blood groups in 1900, for which he won a Nobel Prize thirty years later. See Highlights of Transfusion Medicine History.

Cellular Phone
Henry T. Sampson in 1971? NO!

On July 6, 1971, Sampson and co-inventor George Miley received a patent on a "gamma electric cell" that converts a gamma ray input into an electrical output (Among the first to do that was Bernhard Gross, US patent #3122640, 1964). What, you ask, does gamma radiation have to do with cellular communications technology? The answer: nothing. Some multiculturalist pseudo-historian must have seen the words "electric" and "cell" and thought "cell phone."

The father of the cell phone is Martin Cooper who first demonstrated the technology in 1973.

Clock, (First one built in America)
Benjamin Banneker in 1753? NO!

Abel Cottey, a Quaker clockmaker from Philadelphia, built a clock which is dated 1709 (source: Six Quaker Clockmakers, by Edward C. Chandlee; Philadelphia, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1943). The historian Silvio Bedini found examples of early clockmakers from Banneker's home state of Maryland:

Several watch and clockmakers were already established in the colony prior to the time that Banneker made the clock. In Annapolis alone there were at least four such craftsmen prior to 1750. Among these may be mentioned John Batterson, a watchmaker who moved to Annapolis in 1723; James Newberry, a watch and clockmaker who advertised in the Maryland Gazette on July 20, 1748; John Powell, a watch and clockmaker believed to have been indentured and to have been working in 1745; and Powell's master, William Roberts.

Silvio Bedini, The Life of Benjamin Banneker (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1999)

Clothes Dryer
George T. Sampson in 1892? NO!

In earlier days, a "clothes dryer" simply meant a wooden rack or frame on which one could hang clothes to dry, and that's exactly what is shown in Sampson's patent #476416, dated 1892. As you might expect, wooden frames for drying clothes go back long before 1892. In fact, the Subject Matter Index of Patents Issued from the United States Patent Office from 1790 to 1873 Inclusive lists over three hundred patents with the title "clothes drier" (usually spelled with an i) or variants of that name, and many more similar devices under the title "clothes frame."

A Frenchman named Pochon in 1799 built the first known rotating, tumbling type of clothes dryer (World Almanac Book of Inventions). It was a crank-driven metal drum pierced with ventilation holes and held over heat. The prototype for the modern electric clothes dryer is usually credited to Ross Moore in the 1930s.

Lloyd P. Ray in 1897? NO!

The ultimate origin of the dustpan is lost in the mists (dusts?) of time, but at least we know that US patent #20811 for "Dust-pan" was granted to T.E. McNeill in 1858. In the US, there were 164 or so dustpan patents prior to Lloyd Ray's. See the dustpan patent list.

Egg Beater
Willie Johnson in 1884? NO!

The rotary hand-crank egg beater with two intermeshed, counter-rotating whisks was invented by Turner Williams of Providence, Rhode Island in 1870 (U.S. Patent #103811, picture). It was an improvement on earlier rotary egg beaters that had only one whisk.

Electric Trolley
Did Granville Woods invent the original electric trolley car, overhead trolley wire, and the wheel that makes contact with the trolley wire, in 1888? NO, NO, and NO

Dr. Werner von Siemens demonstrated the "trolley" concept when he exhibited his electric carriage, the Elektromote, near Berlin on April 29, 1882. The vehicle's two electric motors collected power through contact wheels running atop a pair of overhead wires. The earliest patentee of a trolley system in the United States appears to be Eugene Cowles (#252193 in 1881), followed by Dr. Joseph R. Finney (#268476 in 1882) who operated an experimental vehicle in Allegheny, PA in the summer of 1882 (Scribner's Magazine, March 1888, p.316). In early 1885, John C. Henry established in Kansas City, Missouri, what is thought to be the first overhead-wire electric transit system to enter actual service in the United States (New England Magazine, April 1891, p.192). Belgian-born Charles van Depoele, who earned 240+ patents in electric railway technology and other fields, set up trolley lines in several cities across the U.S. by 1887. In February 1888, an electric street railway system designed by Frank Sprague began operating in Richmond, Virginia. Sprague's Richmond system became the lasting prototype for electric street rail lines in the U.S.

Alexander Miles in 1887? NO!
Miles was the first to patent a self-closing shaft door? No.

Steam-powered hoisting devices were used in England by 1800. Elisha Graves Otis' 1853 "safety elevator" prevented the car from falling if the cable broke, and thus paved the way for the first commercial passenger elevator, installed in New York City's Haughwout Department Store in 1857. The electric elevator first appeared in Mannheim, Germany in 1878, built by the German firm of Siemens and Halske. A self-closing shaft door was invented by J.W. Meaker in 1874 ("Improvement in Self-closing Hatchways," U.S. Patent No. 147,853). See Elevator Timeline

Fastest Computer
Philip Emeagwali designed the world's fastest computer, or world's fastest computer program, in 1989? No!

The Connection Machine -- the computer that Emeagwali used to program his "fast" computation in 1989 -- was actually invented by Danny Hillis.

To Emeagwali's credit, he did write a program that won a prize in the Price/Performance category of the 1989 Gordon Bell competition (for "price-performance ratio as measured in megaflop/s per dollar on a genuine application"), but official records show that never in the prize's existence did he win the Performance category for the fastest computational speed. It turns out that he didn't really achieve the highest price-performance ratio either... MORE...

Fiber Optics
Black invention? No!

See Jeff Hecht's A Fiber-Optic Chronology.

Filament for Light Bulb
Lewis Latimer invented the carbon filament in 1881 or 1882? NO!

English chemist/physicist Joseph Swan (later Sir Joseph Swan) experimented with a carbon-filament incandescent light all the way back in 1860, and by 1878 had developed a better design which he patented in Britain. On the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Edison developed a successful carbon-filament bulb, receiving a patent for it in January 1880 (#223898), before he had any association whatsoever with Lewis Latimer. From 1880 onward, there were countless "improvements" and innovations of the carbon filament by numerous inventors (Edison had over 50 patents for such improvements). Latimer did get two filament-related patents in 1881 and 1882, but neither was among the most important innovations, nor is there any indication that either were adopted outside the particular company for which Latimer worked at the time.

Latimer also did not invent the first screw base for the light bulb or the first book on electric lighting.

Fire Escape
Joseph Winters in 1878? NO!

Winters' "fire escape" was a wagon-mounted ladder. The first such contraption patented in the U.S. was the work of William P. Withey, 1840 (US patent #1599). The fire escape with a "lazy-tongs" type ladder, more similar to Winters' patent, was pioneered by Hüttman and Kornelio in 1849 (US patent #6155). One of the first fire escapes of any type was invented in 18th-century England:

In 1784, Daniel Maseres, of England, invented a machine called a fire escape, which, being fastened to the window, would enable anyone to descend to the street without injury.

Butterworth, Growth of Industrial Art, 1888

By 1888 the U.S. had granted 1,099 patents on fire escapes of "many forms, and of every possible material." (Ibid.)

Fire Extinguisher
Thomas J. Martin in 1872? NO!

In 1813, British army captain George Manby created the first known portable fire extinguisher: a two-foot-tall copper cylinder that held 3 gallons of water and used compressed air as a propellant.

One of the earliest extinguishers to use a chemical-based extinguishing agent, and not just water, was invented in 1849 by the Englishman William Henry Phillips, who patented the device in England and also in the United States (U.S. patent #7,269).

Fountain Pen
W.B. Purvis in 1890? NO!

The first reference to what appears to be a fountain pen is found in an Arabic text from 969 AD; little is known about the pen's construction or reliability. A Frenchman named Bion designed the oldest fountain pen that still survives, dated 1702. Subsequent advances included John Scheffer's 1819 pen, possibly the first to be mass-produced; John Jacob Parker's "self-filling" pen of 1832; and the famous Lewis Waterman pen of 1884 (U.S. Patents #293545, #307735). Early History of the Fountain Pen

Gas Mask
Garrett A. Morgan in 1914? NO!!!

The invention of the gas mask predates Morgan's breathing device (which was not really even a gas mask) by several decades. Protective masks that filtered out poisonous chemicals from the air were constructed by the Scottish chemist John Stenhouse in 1854 and the physicist John Tyndall in the 1870s, among many other inventors prior to World War I. See The Invention of the Gas Mask.

George Washington Carver
Revolutionized Southern U.S. agriculture and discovered over 300 new uses for the peanut? NO!

Barry Mackintosh, who served as bureau historian for the National Park Service, refuted such overstatements made on Carver's behalf by demonstrating that (1) the benefits of peanut-based agriculture were already well known prior to Carver's research; (2) that the explosive growth in peanut production in Southern agriculture actually preceded Carver's promotion of the crop; and (3) that many if not most of Carver's "discoveries" were either unoriginal or commercially valueless. See Mackintosh's article "George Washington Carver: The Making of a Myth." It's a must-read.

Also see "George Washington Carver and the Peanut: New Light on A Much Loved Myth." American Heritage, 1977, 28(5):66-73.

Golf Tee
Dr. George Grant in 1899? NO!

Two Scots, William Bloxsom and Arthur Douglas, received the world's first patent for a golf tee after filing an application with the British Patent Office in 1889. Their tee was a flat piece of rubber with a raised stud to prop up the ball. The earliest recorded peg-style tee was the "Perfectum" tee, for which an 1892 British patent was awarded to Percy Ellis of Surrey, England. The modern all-wood golf tee, with funnel-shaped head, concave top, and narrow, pointed stem, was introduced by William Lowell in 1922.

(Details, pictures, source)

Lyda Newman in 1898? NO!

An early U.S. patent for a modern-looking hairbrush went to Hugh Rock in 1854 (U.S. Design Patent no. D645), though surely there were hairbrushes long before there was a US Patent Office. The claim that Lyda Newman's brush was the first with "synthetic bristles" is probably wrong, as her patent mentions absolutely nothing about synthetic bristles and is concerned only with a new way of making the handle detachable from the head. Besides, a hair brush that included "elastic wire teeth" in combination with natural bristles had already been patented by Samuel Firey in 1870 (U.S., #106680). Nylon bristles of course did not exist until after nylon was invented in 1935.

Heart Surgery
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams in 1893? NO!

Williams did not perform heart surgery as we normally think of it, since he repaired only the pericardium (sac surrounding the heart muscle) but left the heart muscle itself alone. Was Dr. Williams even the first to operate on the pericardium? No. Two years earlier, Henry Dalton of St. Louis successfully stitched closed his patient's pericardium in much the same way as Williams did. Many decades before that, the Spaniard Francisco Romero performed surgical drainages of the pericardium to treat cases of pericardial effusion. Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, chief surgeon of Napoleon's army, carried out similar operations around the same time.

It was not until 1896 that Ludwig Rehn successfully sutured not just the pericardium but the actual heart muscle (myocardium) in an operation that many historians mark as the true beginning of cardiac surgery. Surgery on the open heart was pioneered in the 1950s by John Lewis, C. Walton Lillehei (often called the "father of open heart surgery") and John Gibbon (who invented the heart-lung machine).

(Details & references)

Heating Furnace
Alice Parker in 1919? NO!

In the hypocaust heating systems built by the ancient Romans, hot air from a furnace circulated under the floor and up through channels inside the walls, thereby distributing heat evenly around the building. One of the most famous heating systems in recent centuries was the iron furnace stove known as the "Franklin stove," named after its purported originator Benjamin Franklin around 1745 AD. The U.S. had issued over 4000 patents for heating stoves and furnaces by 1888 (Benjamin Butterworth, Growth of Industrial Art, 1888).

Paul E. Williams in 1962? NO!

Frenchman Paul Cornu's helicopter (1907) was the first to leave the ground carrying its own pilot, if only for a few seconds. Jacques Bréguet of France and Heinrich Focke of Germany built working tandem-rotor helicopters in the 1930s. Igor Sikorsky, responsible for many pioneering achievements, was the first to successfully use the single main rotor and tail rotor design which became the dominant configuration of today.

A History of Helicopter Flight

O.E. Brown in 1892? NO!

Some sources on the web, if not ignorant enough to say Brown invented the first horseshoe ever, will at least try to credit Brown for the first double or compound horseshoe made of two layers: one permanently secured to the hoof, and one auxiliary layer that can be removed and replaced whenever it becomes worn. However, in the US there were already 39 earlier patents for horseshoes using that same concept. The first of these was issued to J.B. Kendall of Boston in 1861, patent #33709.

Ice Cream
Augustus Jackson in 1832? No!

Flavored ices resembling sherbet were known in China in ancient times. In Europe, sherbet-like concoctions evolved into ice cream by the 16th century, and around 1660 or so, the Café Procope in Paris offered creamy frozen dairy desserts to the public. The first written record of ice cream in the New World comes from a letter written in 1700, attesting that Maryland Governor William Bladen served the treat to his guests. In 1777, the New York Gazette advertised the sale of ice cream by confectioner Philip Lenzi. History of Ice Cream

Ironing Board
Sarah Boone in 1892? NO!

Of the several hundred US patents on ironing boards granted prior to Sarah Boone's, the first three went to William Vandenburg in 1858 (patents #19390, #19883, #20231). The first American female patentee of an ironing board is probably Sarah Mort of Dayton, Ohio, who received patent #57170 in 1866. In 1869, Henry Soggs of Columbus, Pennsylvania earned US patent #90966 for an ironing board resembling the modern type, with folding legs, adjustable height, and a cover. Another nice example of a modern-looking board was designed by J.H. Mallory in 1871, patent #120296. MORE...

Lawn Mower
John Burr in 1899? NO!

Edwin Budding of England invented the first reel-type lawn mower (with blades arranged in a cylindrical pattern) and had it patented in England in 1830. In 1868 the United States issued patent #73807 to Amariah M. Hills of Connecticut, who went on to establish the Archimedean Lawn Mower Co. in 1871. By 1888, the U.S. Patent Office had granted 138 patents for lawn mowers (Butterworth, Growth of Industrial Art). Doubtlessly there were even more by the time Burr got his patent in 1899.

Burr's variation of lawn mower was not, as some claim, a "rotary blade" mower with a single centrally mounted spinning blade. Instead, his patent #624749 shows yet another new twist on the old reel mower, differing in only a few details with Budding's original.

Lawn Sprinkler
J. H. Smith in 1897? Elijah McCoy? NO!

The first U.S. patent with the title "lawn sprinkler" was issued to J. Lessler of Buffalo, New York in 1871 (#121949). Early examples of water-propelled, rotating lawn sprinklers were patented by J. Oswald in 1890 (#425340) and J. S. Woolsey in 1891 (#457099) among a gazillion others.

Smith's patent shows just another rotating sprinkler, and McCoy's 1899 patent was for a turtle-shaped sprinkler.

Lubricator (Automatic)
Elijah McCoy in 1872? NO!
The phrase "Real McCoy" derives from Elijah? Nope

The oil cup, which automatically delivers a steady trickle of oil to machine parts while the machine is running, predates McCoy's career; a description of one appears in the May 6, 1848 issue of Scientific American. The automatic "displacement lubricator" for steam engines was developed in 1860 by John Ramsbottom of England, and greatly improved upon in 1862 by fellow Englishman James Roscoe. The first "hydrostatic" automatic lubricator appeared in 1870 or 1871.

Variants of the phrase Real McCoy appear in Scottish literature dating back to at least 1852 -- well before Elijah McCoy started designing lubricators.

More: The not-so-real McCoy

Mailbox (letter drop box)
P. Downing invented the street letter drop box in 1891? NO!
George Becket invented the private mailbox in 1892? NO!

The US Postal Service says that "Street boxes for mail collection began to appear in large [U.S.] cities by 1858." They appeared in Europe even earlier, according to historian Laurin Zilliacus:

"Mail boxes as we understand them first appeared on the streets of Belgian towns in 1848. In Paris they came two years later, while the English received their 'pillar boxes' in 1855."

Laurin Zilliacus, Mail for the World, pg. 178 (New York, J. Day Co., 1953)

In the same book (p.178), "Private mail boxes were invented in the United States in about 1860."

Eventually, letter drop boxes came equipped with inner lids to prevent miscreants from rummaging through the mail pile. The first of many U.S. patents for such a purpose was granted in 1860 to John North of Middletown, Connecticut (U.S. Pat. #27466).

Thomas W. Stewart in 1893? NO!

Mops go back a long, long way before 1893. Just how long, is hard to determine. Restricting our view to the modern era, we find that the United States issued its first mop patent (#241) in 1837 to Jacob Howe, called "Construction of Mop-Heads and the Mode of Securing them upon Handles." One of the first patented mops with a built-in wringer was the one H. & J. Morton invented in 1859 (U.S. #24049).

The mop specified in Stewart's patent #499402 has a lever-operated clamp to hold the mop strands; the lever is not a wringing mechanism as erroneously reported on certain websites. Other inventors had already patented mops with lever-operated clamps, one of the first being Greenleaf Stackpole in 1869 (US Pat. #89803).

Paper Punch (hand-held)
Charles Brooks in 1893? NO!
Was it the first with a hinged receptacle to catch the "chads"? No!

The first numbered U.S. patent for a hand-held hole punch was #636, issued to Solyman Merrick in 1836. Robert James Kellett earned the first two US patents for a chad-catching hole punch, in 1867 (patent #65090) and 1868 (#79232).

Peanut Butter
George Washington Carver after 1903? NO!

The earliest documented evidence for peanut butter as we know it comes from U.S. patent #306727 issued to a Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal, Quebec in 1884, for a process of grinding roasted peanuts between heated surfaces until the peanuts were "ground into a fluid or semi-fluid state." As the product cooled, it set into what Edson described as "a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment." It seems that Edson saw no other use for his "peanut-paste" than as flavoring for candy. Around 1890, George A. Bayle Jr. also devised a process for preparing peanut butter and sold the product out of barrels. In 1897, J. H. Kellogg, of cereal fame, received US patent #580787 for his "Process of Preparing Nutmeal" which ground peanuts into a "pasty adhesive substance" that Kellogg called "nut-butter."

Pencil Sharpener
John Lee Love in 1897? NO!

Bernard Lassimone of Limoges, France, invented one of the earliest sharpeners, for which he received French patent number 2444 in 1828. Another Frenchman, Therry des Estwaux, in 1847 developed a manual sharpener similar to some that are still used today. The parent of the modern hand-cranked sharpener was patented by G. F. Ballou in 1896 (US #556709) and marketed by the A.B. Dick Company as the "Planetary Pencil Pointer." As the user held the pencil stationary and turned the crank, twin milling cutters revolved around the tip of the pencil and shaved it into a point.

Love's patent #594114 was a variation on a different kind of sharpener, in which one would crank the pencil itself around in a stirring motion. An earlier device of a similar type was devised in 1888 by G.H. Courson (patent #388533), and sold under the name "President Pencil Sharpener."

Here are several other examples of 19th century pencil sharpeners:
Early Mechanical Pencil Sharpeners
Mechanical Pencil Sharpener Gallery ~ 1884-1899

Permanent Wave Machine (for perming hair)
Marjorie Joyner in 1928? NO!

That would be Charles Nestle in 1906.

Postmarking and Canceling Machine
William Barry in 1897? NO!

Try Pearson Hill of England, in 1857. Hill's machine marked the postage stamp with vertical lines and postmark date. By 1892, US post offices were using several brands of machines that could cancel, postmark, count and stack in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 pieces of mail per hour (Marshall Cushing, Story of Our Post Office, Boston: A. M. Thayer & co., 1892, pp.189-191).

Printing Press
W.A. Lavalette in 1878? NO!

Movable-type printing originated in East Asia. It appeared in Europe around 1455, when Johann Gutenberg adapted the screw press used in other trades such as winemaking and combined it with type-metal alloy characters and oil-based printing ink. Major innovations after Gutenberg include the cylinder printing press (c. 1811) by Frederick Koenig and Andreas Bauer, the rotary press (1846) by Richard M. Hoe, and the web press (1865) by William Bullock.

The U.S. had granted 3,268 patents on printing apparatus by the year 1888 (Butterworth, Growth of Industrial Art).

Improvements After Gutenberg

Propeller for Ship
George Tolivar? NO!

John Stevens constructed a boat with twin steam-powered screw propellers in 1804 in the first known application of a screw propeller for marine propulsion. Other important pioneers in the early 1800s included Sir Francis Pettit Smith of England, and Swedish-born ship designer John Ericsson (U.S. patent #588) who later designed the USS Monitor.

Railroad Car Coupler (Automatic)
Andrew Beard in 1897? NO!

US Civil War veteran Eli H. Janney in 1873 (US patent no. #138405) invented the automatic railroad car coupler that replaced the dangerous link-and-pin coupler and became the basis for standard coupler design through the remainder of the millenium. It became known as the "knuckle coupler" or "Janney coupler." Andrew Beard's variant of Janney's knuckle-style coupler was just one of approximately eight thousand coupler variations patented by 1900. (See a history of the automatic coupler and also The Janney Coupler.)

Railway Telegraph (induction)
Granville Woods in 1887? No

The first inventor to patent an induction telegraphy system for communicating to and from moving trains was William W. Smith (US. Pat. #247127, Sept 13, 1881). The first to attain practical success was Lucius Phelps, who patented his railway telegraph in 1884 (#307984) and successfully demonstrated it on the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad in January of 1885. The feat was hailed in Scientific American, Feb. 21, 1885. By that time, Granville Woods hadn't even applied for a patent yet, nor had he built a working railway telegraph. Phelps remained the leader in the development of the technology, and by the end of 1887 already held 14 patents on his system. Phelps eventually joined forces with Thomas Edison -- who had been developing his own "grasshopper telegraph" for trains -- and together they constructed, on the Lehigh Valley railroad, the only train telegraph ever known to have been put to commercial use. Phelps and Edison challenged one of Granville Woods' patents and accused him of stealing ideas from the 1885 Scientific American article, but the courts ruled twice that Woods had developed his own plan independently.

The Lehigh Valley telegraph, although a technical success, apparently fulfilled no public need, and the whole field of train telegraphy soon fizzled out. There is no evidence that any commercial railway telegraph based on Woods' patents was ever built.

"Real McCoy," origin of phrase
see Lubricator, Automatic.
T. Elkins in 1879? John Stanard in 1891? NO!

Oliver Evans proposed a mechanical refrigerator based on a vapor-compression cycle in 1805 and Jacob Perkins had a working machine built in 1834. Dr. John Gorrie created an air-cycle refrigeration system around 1844, which he installed in a Florida hospital. In the 1850s Alexander Twining in the U.S. and James Harrison in Australia used mechanical refrigeration to produce ice on a commercial scale. Around the same time, the Carré brothers of France led the development of the first absorption refrigeration systems. A more detailed timeline

John Stanard's "refrigerator" patent describes not a mechanical refrigeration unit, but rather a version of the old icebox -- an insulated cabinet into which ice is placed to cool the interior. Thomas Elkins' "refrigerator" is a modification of an even older idea, going back to ancient times, and he even acknowledges in his patent #221222 that "I am aware that chilling substances inclosed within a porous box or jar by wetting its outer surface is an old and well-known process."

Rotary Engine
Andrew Beard in 1892? NO!

The Subject Matter Index of Patents Issued from the United States Patent Office from 1790 to 1873 Inclusive lists 394 "Rotary Engine" patents from 1810-1873. The Wankel engine, a rotary combustion engine with a four-stroke cycle, dates from 1953. History of the Rotary Engine from 1588 Onward

Screw Socket for Light Bulb
Lewis Latimer? NO!

The earliest evidence for a light bulb screw base design is a drawing in a Thomas Edison notebook dated Sept. 11, 1880. It is not the work of Latimer, though:

"Edison's long-time associates, Edward H. Johnson and John Ott, were principally responsible for designing fixtures in the fall of 1880. Their work resulted in the screw socket and base very much like those widely used today."

R. Friedel and P. Israel, Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1986).

The 1880 sketch of the screw socket is reproduced in the book cited above.

Smallpox Vaccine
Onesimus the slave in 1721? NO! Onesimus knew of variolation, an early inoculation technique practiced in many areas of the world before the discovery of vaccination.

English physician Edward Jenner created the smallpox vaccine in 1796 after finding that the relatively innocuous cowpox virus would build immunity against the deadly smallpox. His discovery led to the eventual eradication of endemic smallpox throughout the world. Vaccination differs from the primitive inoculation method known as variolation, which involved the deliberate transfer of live smallpox from an infected individual to the healthy and usually produced milder symptoms than if the disease was caught "naturally." Variolation not only was risky to the patient but, more importantly, failed to prevent the disease from spreading.

Smokestack for Locomotives
L. Bell in 1871? NO!

Even the first steam locomotives, such as the one built by Richard Trevithick in 1804, were equipped with smokestacks. Later smokestacks featured wire netting to prevent hazardous sparks from escaping. Page 115 of John H. White Jr.'s American Locomotives: An Engineering History, 1830-1880 (1997 edition) displays a composite picture showing 57 different types of spark-arresting smokestacks devised before 1860.

Steam Boiler
Granville Woods in 1884? No!

There can be no steam engine without a boiler to make steam; therefore steam boilers are as old as the steam engine itself. The Subject Matter Index of Patents Issued from the United States Patent Office from 1790 to 1873 Inclusive lists several hundred variations and improvements to the steam boiler, including the revolutionary "water-tube boiler" patented in 1867 by American inventors George Herman Babcock and Stephen Wilcox.

Street Sweeper
Charles Brooks in 1896? NO!

Brooks' patent was for a modified version of a common type of street sweeper cart that had long been known, with a rotary brush that swept refuse onto an elevator belt and into a trash bin. In the United States, street sweepers started being patented in the 1840s, and by 1900 the Patent Office had issued about 300 patents for such machines. MORE...

Supercharger for Automobiles
Joseph Gammel? NO!

In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler received a German patent for supercharging an internal combustion engine. Louis Renault patented a centrifugal supercharger in France in 1902. The first successful supercharged racecar, or at least one of the first, was built by Lee Chadwick of Pottstown, Pennsylvania in 1908 and reached a speed of 100 miles per hour. History of Supercharging

"Third rail" (for transmitting power to electric railways/subways)
Granville Woods in 1897 or 1901? NO!!!

Woods did design a third-rail system and get a patent for it (in 1901), but so did many other inventors before him, including Thomas Edison in 1882 (US Pat. #263132); in fact, the technology was already two decades old before Woods supposedly "invented" it. The originator of the concept may have been Werner von Siemens, who used an electrified third rail (laid between the two track rails) to supply power to his experimental electric locomotive at a Berlin exhibition in 1879. Further development by Siemens' company led to the world's first public electric rail system in Lichterfelde, Germany in 1881. In the US, English-born Leo Daft used a third rail to electrify the Baltimore & Hampden lines in 1885. The first electrically-powered subway trains, which debuted in London in early October, 1890, likewise drew current from a third rail. MORE...

Toilet; also, Railroad Car Toilet
T. Elkins invented the first toilet in 1897? Lewis Latimer invented the first toilet for railroad cars? No, and no...

The Minoans of Crete are said to have invented a flush toilet thousands of years ago; however, there is probably no direct ancestral relationship between it and the modern one that evolved primarily in England starting in 1596. In that year, Sir John Harrington devised a flushing device for his godmother Queen Elizabeth. In 1775 Alexander Cummings patented a toilet in which some water remained after each flush, thereby supressing odors from below. The "water closet" continued to evolve, and in 1885, Thomas Twyford provided us with a single-piece ceramic toilet similar to the one we know today. Link: Who Invented the Toilet?

As for the railroad car toilet, William E. Marsh Jr. of New Jersey took out US patent #95597 for "Improvement in Water-closets for Railroad Cars" five years prior to Latimer's 1874 patent with the same title. The text of Marsh's patent specification suggests that railroad-car water closets, i.e., toilets, were already in use:

"In the closets or privies of railroad cars, the cold and wind, especially while the train is in motion, are very disagreeable... My invention is to remove these objectionable features...."

W.Marsh, US patent #95597, 1869

Traffic Signal
Garrett A. Morgan in 1923? NO!

The first known traffic signal, designed by JP Knight, appeared in London in 1868 near the Houses of Parliament. Some other notable early signals are Lester Wire's red-and-green electric light signals installed in Salt Lake City circa 1912; James Hoge's traffic light (U.S. patent #1,251,666) installed in Cleveland by the American Traffic Signal Company in 1914; and William Potts' 4-way red-yellow-green traffic lights introduced in Detroit beginning in 1920. New York City traffic towers began flashing red, yellow, and green signals also in 1920.

Garrett Morgan's cross-shaped, crank-operated signal was not among the first few dozen patented traffic signals; nor was it "automatic" as is sometimes claimed; nor did it play any significant part in the development of the modern traffic light; nor is there any real evidence that it was ever put into widespread use. See Inventing History: Garrett Morgan and the Traffic Signal.

M.A. Cherry in 1886? NO!

In Germany in the year 1680 or thereabouts, paraplegic watchmaker Stephan Farffler built his own tricycle at 22 years of age. He designed it to be pedaled with the hands, for obvious reasons. History of the tricycle.

L.S. Burridge & N.R. Marshman in 1885? NO!

Henry Mill, an English engineer, was the first person to patent the basic idea of the typewriter in 1714. The first working typewriter known to have actually been built was the work of Pellegrino Turri of Italy in 1808. Americans C. L. Sholes and C. Glidden patented the familiar QWERTY keyboard in 1868 and brought it to market in 1873. In 1878 change-case keys were added that enabled the typing of both capital and small letters.

A more extensive chronology, with pictures: Typewriter History

Washington D.C. city plan
Benjamin Banneker? NO!

Pierre L'Enfant created the layout of Washington D.C.  Banneker assisted Andrew Ellicott in the survey of the D.C. territory, but played no direct role in the planning of the city. The story of Banneker reconstructing the city design from memory after L'Enfant ran away with the plans (with the implication that Washington D.C. would not exist today if not for Banneker) has been debunked by historians. MORE...