BLACK INVENTORS AND SCIENTISTS
So black people can't invent?
Has a black person ever invented anything? Well, the answer must be no - that is, if you believe conventional wisdom. But the facts tell a different story. A black man, in fact, invented the very traffic lights that the world cannot do without. And more... Baffour Ankomah reports.
A Ghanaian secondary school teacher visiting London recently would not believe that a black man invented the traffic lights. "What?," he asked in utter incredulity. "How can a black man invent the traffic lights?"
Well, you can imagine the sort of education this secondary school teacher has imparted, or is imparting, to his students, not out of malice but sheer ignorance. Which speaks volumes about the kind of education Africans receive. All said, this Ghanaian secondary school teacher genuinely believes that black people "cannot or do not" (his words) invent things, they buy other people's inventions. Well, there is something here for him.
A new textbook, Black Scientists and Inventors Book One, published in London recently by BIS Publications dismantles the notion that black people are not inventors.
Co-authored by Ava Henry and Michael Williams (both directors of the London-based BIS Enterprises Ltd), the book is designed for use by children aged 7-16. "It is our hope that parents and teachers will help the children on this journey of knowledge and discovery," say the authors.
The issue of black inventions, like slavery and reparations, is now top of the topics in the Black Diaspora. Black people are finding it increasingly difficult to understand why, even in the Internet era of openness and liberalism, black inventors and scientists are still denied their due recognition. And this is despite the fact that there are records showing that right from ancient times, a number of key inventions that the world now takes for granted were made by black people.
The old eraWriting about African inventions and discoveries, Count C. Volney, the renowned French historical researcher, wrote: "A people now forgotten, discovered, while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and science. A race of men, now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe."
To which Dr John Henrik Clarke, the African-American historical researcher adds: "First, the distortions must be admitted. The hard fact is that most of what we now call world history is only the history of the first and second rise of Europe. The Europeans are not yet willing to acknowledge that the world did not wait in darkness for them to bring the light. The history of Africa was already old when Europe was born."
Dr Clarke is supported by the German scholar and explorer, Leo Frobenius, who wrote in his principal work, Und Afrika Sprach, published in 1910: "In that portion of the globe, the stalwart Anglo-Saxon [Henry Morton] Stanley gave the name of 'dark' and 'darkest'... [But] before the foreign invasion, Africans did not dwell in small clusters but in towns with 20,000 or 30,000 inhabitants, whose highways were shaded by avenues of splendid palms, planted at regular intervals and laid out in an orderly manner."
Frobenius' exposé was even bettered by Thomas Hodgkins, the British historian, who wrote later:
"When people talk, as they still sometimes do, about Africa South of the Sahara as a 'continent without history', what they really mean is that Africa is a continent about whose history we Europeans are still deplorably ignorant... One must admit, we are all to some extent still victims of a colonial mentality: we find it hard to realise that Africans possessed their own indigenous civilisations for many centuries before we Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century, conceived the idea of trying to sell them ours."
Most historians now accept that the ancient African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay were highly civilised empires that developed scientific societies. In his 1864 work, A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, J. W. Draper wrote freely about the vastly superior social and artistic development of the Moors [blacks] who "might well have looked with supercilious contempt on the dwellings of the rulers of Germany, France and England, which were scarcely better than stables - chimney-less, windowless and with a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape like the wigwams of certain Indians."
Recently the British TV, Channel 4 anchorman, Jon Snow, who made his name as a journalist in Africa in the 70s, was amazed to find in a library in Timbuktu (Mali), stacks of books dating back "more than 500 years" (his own words on camera). "We [meaning Europeans] like to think we brought books to Africa, but here in my hands is evidence showing the contrary. They gave us the books", Snow said as he leafed through one of the ancient books.
Records show that the very first university in Europe, Salamanka in Spain, was founded after the fashion of the University of Sankore in Timbuktu whose professors were all Africans.
Ancient EgyptRight from Ancient Egypt, which was essentially a black empire whose great glory has now been mischievously attributed to Arabians, black people have led the way in the sciences.
Sir J. G. Wilkinson admitted in his book, The Ancient Egyptians, published in 1854: "That the [ancient] Egyptians possessed considerable knowledge of chemistry and the use of metallic oxides, is evident from the nature of the colours applied to their glass and porcelain; and they were even acquainted with the influence of acids upon colour, being able, in the process of dyeing or staining cloth, to bring out certain changes in the hues, by the same means adopted in our own cotton works."
In his 1907 book, Ancient Egypt the Light of the World, Gerald Massy freely admitted that Imhotep, the black multi-genius, was the real "father of medicine", not the Greek physician Hippocrates now commonly regarded as the father of medicine.
Imhotep was an Ancient Egyptian who lived about 2300 BC. Records show that both Greece and Rome had their knowledge of medicine from him. He was worshipped in Rome as the "Prince of Peace in the form of a black man". He was also the foremost architect of his time, and served as prime minister to Ancient Egypt's King Zoser. The saying, "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" has now been traced to Imhotep. Hippocrates, the so-called "father of medicine" lived 2,000 years after Imhotep. Yet, the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors in the modern era to observe a code of medical ethics is derived from that of Hippocrates, not Imhotep.
This denial or mis-attribution of black people's inventions and discoveries is the reason people like the Ghanaian secondary school teacher can say black people cannot or do not invent. Yet the inventions of paper, shoe-making, alcoholic beverages, cosmetics, libraries, architecture, and many more, were all made by black people long before the rise of Europe.
Arthur Weigall, in his book, Personalities of Antiquity, published in 1928 admits that Akhnaton, the black monarch of Ancient Egypt, was the first person to preach the belief in one God who was all-powerful, all loving.
"In the early years of his reign," Weigall wrote, "while he was still a boy, [Akhnaton] promulgated a doctrine which was in its outward aspect a worship of the invisible and formless Power, named the Aton. It was made apparent to mankind in the life-giving energy of sunlight, but which, in its inner meaning, was simply a belief in one God, all-powerful, all-loving, the tender father of every living creature, by whom all things had their being, and to whom cruelty, hatred, warfare and the like were utterly abhorrent."
Weigall is supported by J. A. Rogers in his own book, World's Great Men of Colour. About Akhnaton, Rogers wrote: "Living centuries before King David, he wrote psalms as beautiful as those of the Judean monarch. Thirteen hundred years before Christ, Akhnaton preached and lived a gospel of perfect love, brotherhood and truth. Two thousand years before Mahomet, he taught the doctrine of the One God. Three thousand years before Darwin, he sensed the unity that runs through all living things."
At the time Akhnaton was preaching his belief in a one, almighty God, it was heretic to believe in such a thing. Thus the modern belief in an almighty God, so beloved by both Christians and Muslims, in truth, is a carry-over of Akhnaton's work whose origins go much further back than the Judean or Christian eras.
More black inventionsIn the Roman era, a now forgotten black man, Tiro (born circa 103 BC) was the first to invent shorthand writing. Various historians have recorded Tiro as having become secretary to the Roman knight, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
In the book, Shorthand (Heffey Collection, New York Public Library), Tiro is recorded to have "first followed with his own peculiar method of signs, the words of the human voice with a stroke for every sound. He also published a collection of his letters, the fragments have been preserved to us [by] various authors; but it is not so much these that have rendered his name imperishable in the history of Roman literature, as the invention of the Roman shorthand writing, the inception of which, as before remarked, we may date back at most to the year 63 BC."
Cicero loved to dictate his letters to Tiro who wrote them down in shorthand. Now how many centuries is that, from 63 BC to 1837 AD, when the Englishman, Sir Isaac Pitman, "invented" his (Pitman) shorthand.
Writing about Mathematics in his book, The Ancient History, Charles Rollin said:
"Mathematics holds the first place among the sciences, because they alone are founded upon infallible demonstrations. And this undoubtedly gave them their name. For Mathesis in Greek signified science. The [ancient] Egyptians are said to have invented it on account of the inundations of the Nile. For that river carrying away the landmarks every year, and lessening some estates to enlarge others, the Egyptians were obliged to measure their country often, and for that purpose to contrive a method and art, which was the origin and beginning of geometry. It passed from Egypt to Greece, and Thales of Miletus is believed to have carried it thither at his return from his travels."
For the avoidance of doubt, Sir J. G. Wilkinson adds in his book, The Ancient Egyptians: "I have also known that Herodotus and others ascribe the origin of geometry to the Egyptians, but the period when it commenced is uncertain. Anticledes pretends that Meoris was the first to lay down the elements of that science, which he says was perfected by Pythagoras; but the latter observation is merely the result of the vanity of the Greeks, which claimed for their countrymen (as in the case of Thales and other instances) the credit of enlightening a people on the very subject which they had visited Egypt for the purpose of studying."
Now where is the Ghanaian secondary school teacher; he would like to know that the Great Thinker, Esop, who lived in the 6th century BC, was black. J. A. Rogers records in World's Great Men of Colour:
"According to Planudes the Great, a monk in the 14th century, to whom we are indebted for Esop's life and fables in its present form, [Esop was] 'flat-nosed, with lips thick and pendulous and a black skin from which he contracted his name (Esop, being the same with Ethiop)'. The influence of Esop on Western thought and morals is profound. Plato, Socrates, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, La Fontaine and other great thinkers found inspiration in his words of wisdom. Socrates spent his last days putting [Esop's] fables into verse."
The modern eraWithout doubt, the most visible black invention of the modern era by miles is the traffic lights. Garret A. Morgan, an African-American (born in Kentucky, USA, on 4 March 1877) invented the automatic traffic signalling system in 1923, and later sold the rights to the General Electric Corporation (GEC) for $40,000.
Morgan, the 7th of his parent's 11 children, had only an elementary school education, but he was smart. His working life started as a sewing machine technician. He soon invented a belt fastener for sewing machines. He sold the invention in 1901 for less than $50.
Morgan went on to invent the first gas mask in 1912 and was given a patent for it by the US government. He subsequently set up a company to manufacture the mask. Business was good initially, especially during World War I, but when his customers discovered that he was black, the orders started to dry up. Morgan tried to circumvent the downturn in business by inventing a cream which he used to straighten his hair, in order to pass as an Indian from the Walpole Reservation in Canada. He died in 1963, aged 86.
Another of the great black inventors was Elijah McCoy (he of the real McCoy fame). He was born on 2 May 1843 in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. His parents escaped slavery from America's South and went to live in Canada with their 12 children.
Young Elijah was great on mechanical devices. After schooling in Edinburgh (Scotland), he went back to Canada but could not find a job. He ended up in the US where he got a job as a railway labourer in Detroit, Michigan. He was put in charge of oiling machinery. McCoy was intrigued when the machines ground to a halt because they needed oiling, and started investigating.
This led to his setting up a manufacturing company in 1870 to work on a solution to stop machinery from grinding to a halt. In 1872, he invented the "drip cup" for oiling factory machinery. He followed it up by inventing the "lubricator cup", a new device for steam engines which allowed them to remain in constant use.
When he died in 1929 he had over 50 patents to his name, including an iron table and lawn sprinkler. His device for the steam engines, says the black magazine, Ebony, "paved the way for the industrial revolution of the 20th century".
The popular phrase, "the real McCoy" was coined when other inventors tried to copy McCoy's inventions. But as they tried to sell the replicas, the prospective buyers realising that the replicas were not as good as McCoy's, would often ask: "Is this the real McCoy?"
Back home in Africa, the Ghanaian scientist, Dr Raphael E. Armattoe (1913-1953), who was runner-up for the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1948, found the cure for the water-borne guinea-worm disease with his Abochi drug in the 1940s. He also carried out extensive research into different species of African herbs and roots for medicinal use.
America's black inventorsIn America alone, thousands of black inventors and scientists have contributed hugely to national, if not global, life, without being acknowledged or celebrated.
Here is a sample - a small sample - of black inventors in America in the modern era:
The above is by no means an exhaustive list. There are thousands more black inventors and inventions all over the world that cannot be mentioned in this article. Yet if you asked our Ghanaian secondary school teacher: Who invented the "Hot Comb", the "Wonderful Hair Grower", and the "Ecocharger", he might well say: "Not a black person".
Yet Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), America's first woman millionaire, who invented the Hot Comb, the Wonderful Hair Grower, the Vegetable Shampoo and Glossine, was black. Her parents were ex-African slaves.
And the inventor of the Ecocharger, Ron Headley, was black. He moved to England in 1952 from Jamaica at the age of 13.
The Ecocharger is described in the book, Black Scientists and Inventors, as "a cleaner diesel engine emission system [that] improves the performance of diesel cars because it reduces smoke emission, fuel consumption and allows cars to run for 150,000 miles without major maintenance. Ron's innovation succeeds where others fail. It works on the fuel before combustion, so there is no need for a catalytic converter to clean up the exhaust afterwards. This allows us all to breathe cleaner air."Black Scientists and Inventors (£5.99)
is published by BIS Publications UK.
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