February 19, 2011

Feb 19 – Inventions for Errands and Chores

Saturday tends to be the day to get chores done around the house and run errands.   It is raining in London today, so the errands have been fairly miserable; and I’d rather be playing.  Regardless, I have these African-Americans to thank for helping me to get them done:

W.B. Purvis Invented the Fountain Pen
Philip B. Downing Invented the Mailbox

Two of my friends had babies this week, and two friends have birthdays next week, so I have lots of cards to write, and then pop them in the mailbox.

William B. Purvis was a resident of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a prolific inventor (for example: a bag fastener, a hand stamp, an electric railway device, an electric railway switch, a magnetic car-balancing device and the edge cutter used for aluminum foil, plastic wrap and parchment paper). He also felt that it was extremely inconvenient to have to carry a bottle of ink with you whenever you needed to sign contracts and legal papers. In January 1890, he received a patent for the fountain pen. Speaking about his invention, he said, “the object of my invention is to provide a simple, durable and inexpensive construction of a fountain pen adapted to general use and which may be carried in the pocket." Nothing more is known about William beyond his many inventions.

W.B. Purvis's Fountain Pen Patent

Almost two years later, in October 1891, Philip B. Downing received a patent for a metal box, with four legs and a hinged door to protect the mail.  He called it a street letter box, and today’s mailbox, in the United States, has not changed that much from his original invention (Philip also invented an electrical switch for railroads, which allowed railroad workers to supply or shut off power to trains at appropriate times. Based on this design, innovators would later create electrical switches such as light switches used in the home). Nothing else has been recorded about Philip’s life.

Philip Downing's Mailbox Patent
Today's Mailbox

Thomas L. Jennings Invented Dry-Cleaning

My local post office is right next door to the dry cleaner. Thomas L. Jennings was the first African-American to receive a U.S. patent, in March, 1821 Thomas was born in New York City, a free man, in 1791. He became a tailor in his twenties, and his skills became so renowned that he made enough money to open his own clothing store. His customers came to him when the clothing became soiled because they were not washable. So Thomas invented a process called ‘dry-scouring’, which evolved into dry-cleaning. His patent created much consternation amongst the White community because slaves, at the time, were not allowed to patent their inventions – they were the property of their ‘owners’ (In 1861 patent rights were finally extended to slaves).  However, because Thomas was a free man, he was able to own his patent and profit from it.  He used his profits to pay for the freedom of the rest of his family members, who were slaves; and to fund abolitionist causes. Thomas served as assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the People of Color, which met in Philadelphia in June, 1831; and he died in New York City in 1856.

Thomas Jennings

Today's Dry-Cleaner

Dennis Weatherby Patented Automatic Dishwasher Detergent
Sarah Boone Invented a Much-Improved Ironing Board

Back home; and now, I need to run the dishwasher and iron those clothes, which do not get dry-cleaned.

Dennis Weatherby was born in Alabama, in 1960. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree, in Chemistry, from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio; and went on to receive a Master of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Dayton. Dennis’s first job was with Procter & Gamble (P&G) as a Process Engineer. Proving himself quite early, at the age of 27, he was asked to lead a team to create a new consumer product for the kitchen. The result was a lemon-scented, automatic dishwashing detergent, which P&G branded Cascade. Dennis shares the December, 1987 patent with team member, Brian Roselle. He eventually went on to work for other corporations; and ultimately, to teach at universities, including Auburn University (where he founded its Minority Engineering Program – making Auburn one of the top universities for graduating African-Americans in the field of Engineering) and the University of Notre Dame. Dennis sadly died at the very young age of 47, from a blood clot.

Dennis Weatherby
Dennis Weatherby's Cascade Patent

I have to admit that I really loathe ironing. However, turning up to meetings and social events looking like I have slept in my clothes is not an option. So, of course, I iron.  Thanks to Sarah Boone, it is much easier than it was originally, when ironing was invented. Sarah was a former slave, who lived in New Haven, Connecticut.  Prior to April, 1892, when she patented the ironing board (She applied for the patent in December, 1887), people had to iron their clothes on a table; lay a plank of wood across two chairs or small tables; or if they had some wealth, they owned an ‘ironing board’, which was a plank of wood that folded out of the wall. One the biggest issues, with these methods, was that they also could not easily iron certain parts of clothing, such as sleeves. Sarah’s invention was made of a narrow wooden board, with collapsible legs and a padded cover; and was specifically designed for the fitted clothing worn during that time period. It was very narrow and curved, the size and fit of a sleeve; and it was reversible, making it easy to iron both sides of a sleeve. Sarah states on her patent that her objective was to create a “cheap, simple, convenient and highly-effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies garments.”  She did not use specific measurements, so that it could be made for different-sized garments. The rest of Sarah’s life remains a mystery.

Sarah Boone's Ironing Board Patent
Today's Ironing Board

So, let’s face it, errands and chores are pretty mundane; but, they have to be done. Thanks to these five, African-American inventors, at least they’re a little bit easier to do.

Enjoy your Saturday, and make sure that you have some fun, too!

Sources:  Wikipedia, Answers.com. BlackInventors.com, African-AmericanInventors.com, MIT, US Patent & Trademark Office, Google Images, Getty Images

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