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The Eccentric Engineer: George Washington Murray and America’s black engineers

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This is the story of how George Washington Murray used Congress to immortalise the names of America’s 19th-century black engineers and patent-holders.

Engineers rarely receive the recognition they deserve. Yet it was much harder to gain recognition having been born into slavery in 19th-century America. However, thanks to one man, we do know the names of the black pioneers of American engineering.

On 10 August 1894, George Washington Murray stood up in Congress and began to speak. It had been a long journey to get there. He had been born into slavery on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in 1853 and freed as a child. Taking up politics, he had joined the Republican Party, become a leader in the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and eventually won a seat in Congress despite harassment, widespread discrimination and voter fraud.

Now, standing before fellow congressmen, he had a little power. The debate was on proposed legislation for a Cotton States Exhibition to publicise the South’s technological process since the Civil War and he knew that whatever he said would be faithfully recorded and entered into public record of the United States to remain there forever. He began: “Mr Speaker, the coloured people of this country want an opportunity to show that the progress, that the civilisation which is now admired the world over, that the civilisation which is now leading the world, that the civilisation which all nations of the world look up to and imitate – the coloured people, I say, want an opportunity to show that they, too, are part and parcel of that great civilisation.”

Then, after this rousing preamble, he went on to read a simple list of 92 patents held by black Americans – the roll of honour for a group of engineers and inventors who might otherwise have been swept from the history books entirely.

They were an extraordinary group. Thomas L Jennings, a former tailor and abolitionist, had received the first patent awarded to a black American for a dry-cleaning process back in 1821. The very idea of a black American holding a patent then caused a scandal, as it was assumed that a slave’s intellectual efforts belonged to their owner. Yet Jennings was free and the patent held. 

Judy W Reed patented an improved bread dough kneader in 1884, becoming the first black American woman to hold a patent. That patent document and her mention in Murray’s speech are the only surviving record of her life.

Some names appear frequently on the list. Granville T Woods had become known as the ‘Black Edison’ and held numerous patents concerning electricity in railway cars. His ‘Telegraphony’ system, which allowed the sending of telegram and voice messages over a single wire, had been sold to the Bell telephone company. In 1887, his Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph system, which allowed communication from moving trains, had brought him into conflict with the real Edison who claimed the patents for himself. Having been robustly seen off twice by Woods, Edison was forced to try to gain the technology by offering Woods a lucrative job. He declined.

Elijah McCoy also features many times in the list, having received a total of 57 patents over his lifetime. Born free in Canada to a family of fugitive slaves, he took up an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer in Edinburgh, Scotland, before returning to his family now in the USA. Finding there was only work for a black American as a fireman or oiler on the railroad, he used his spare time to invent improvements to the machinery all around him. Most of his patents concern automatic lubricating systems for the railroad, but he also found time to invent a lawn sprinkler and a folding ironing board.

Miriam Benjamin, the second black woman to receive a US patent, was mentioned for her ‘gong and signal chair for hotels’. This device allowed a guest to summon a waiter by pressing a button on their chair. A light on the chair then told the waiter which diner was requesting attention.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s contribution to the USA and the world in general can be found on your feet, as he invented the first machine to be able to stitch a shoe upper to a sole.

Of course there was Murray himself, who held eight patents for farming tools. It was this success that first brought him local recognition and his selection as the Sumter County delegate to the 1880 Republican Party state convention. That started him on the road to Congress where, at last, he was entering names of American’s forgotten engineers and inventors in the annals of history.

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