Black inventors have greatly improved our way of life, including the way we light, heat, and cool our homes. In honor of Black History Month, we’re turning the spotlight on black Americans whose ingenuity helped shape the energy market and benefited modern culture.
Lewis Latimer (1848-1928)
Lewis Latimer was an inventor and draftsman who worked with some of the most influential engineers and electricians of his age, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
Born to escaped slaves in Massachusetts, Lewis served in the navy during the Civil War. After being discharged, he joined a patent firm at the age of 17 and quickly rose through the ranks. Though he had little formal education, Latimer taught himself the basics of technical drawing and in 1872, he was promoted to head draftsman.
Latimer filed his first patent in 1874 ‒ an improved toilet system for railroad cars. His talents attracted the attention of Alexander Graham Bell and after a brief stint with him (Lewis’ talent for creating detailed, technical diagrams helped Graham secure the patent for the first telephone), Lewis joined the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, one of Thomas Edison’s direct competitors. He oversaw major lighting installations in Philadelphia, New York, Montreal, and London
Latimer filed six more patents over the course of his life, including an early version of the air conditioner (Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting), and a locking rack for hats, coats and umbrellas. However, he is best remembered for his improvements to the light bulb. By encasing the filament in cardboard, he was able to significantly extend its lifespan, paving the way for modern lighting and illumination.
In 1884, Latimer left the U.S. Electric Lighting Company and, at the invitation of Thomas Edison, became the chief draftsman and patent specialist at the Edison Electric Light Co. Though he never worked for Edison as an engineer, Latimer’s legal and technical expertise was crucial to Edison as he fought to protect his work from infringement.
Latimer was the only black member of the Edison Pioneers, an informal group of inventors and engineers who worked with Edison during his early career. Latimer later authored several books on electricity and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 in recognition of his accomplishments.
Alice H. Parker (1885-1920)
Alice H. Parker revolutionized central heating. Though the concept had existed since ancient times, little had been done to open the technology to home use. Most people relied on stoves and fireplaces, which meant heat was localized rather than spread evenly through the home. Wood and coal were the main sources of fuel.
The few buildings with central heating did not have much control over how their heat was distributed. Warm air couldn’t be directed into specific rooms, which meant that in order to heat one part of the building, you had to heat every part of the building ‒a grossly inefficient system.
Parker grew up in New Jersey and suffered through many cold winters before inventing the world’s first gas-powered furnace. It drew cold air into a heat exchanger, where it was warmed and distributed through individual vents to each room of the house. Each vent could be closed individually, allowing residents to direct heat where it was most needed.
Though her invention required further tinkering, it drastically reduced heating costs while improving the comfort and health of ordinary Americans ‒ the prototype for the modern zone-heating systems we use today.
Fredrick McKinley Jones (1893-1961)
Frederick McKinley Jones was a pioneer in refrigeration. Abandoned early in life, his natural intelligence and strong work ethic helped him overcome his poor upbringing. Like Lewis Latimer, Jones was self-taught.
By 14, he was working in a garage, repairing cars. After serving in WWI, he returned to America and built radio transmitters. He created an improved audio projector, which combined sound and motion pictures.
Jones received over 60 patents during his life. Some of his notable inventions include the portable x-ray machine, a movie ticket dispenser, and a propeller-powered snowmobile. Without a doubt, however, his greatest creation was the portable refrigerator he developed in 1938. Until then, the only way to preserve fruits, vegetables, meat, and other perishable items was to pack them in ice.
Jones’ portable refrigerator was a vast improvement, making it possible to establish national and global supply chains on a scale never seen before. For the first time, supermarkets could offer fresh food at any time of year.
In order to market and profit off his new technology, Jones founded Thermo King in 1940. By 1949, the company was worth $3 million ($35 million today). It also played a vital role in WWII, helping the US military transport food, medicine, and blood to soldiers and sailors in Europe and the Pacific.
Jones died of cancer in 1961. In memory of his achievements, President George H. W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 1991. His wife Lucille accepted the honor on his behalf.
David Nelson Crosthwait Jr. (1898-1976)
David Nelson Crosthwait Jr. began tinkering with new technology at an early age. After graduating from Purdue on a full scholarship, he joined the Dunham Company in Iowa, where he designed and installed heating systems.
Crosthwait was a prolific inventor. He received 119 patents throughout his life, 39 in the United States and 80 internationally, including designs for a vacuum pump, thermostat, and improved climate systems. He was also responsible for the heating systems in Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, planning and overseeing their construction.