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Agricultural Innovations: African American Inventors

The Tobacco Farm Life Museum is celebrating Black History Month in February by highlighting the contributions and achievements of African Americans in agriculture, science, and education. This week we are sharing the stories of African American inventors who created devices that impacted agriculture.

For over a thousand years, tools used in farming stayed basically the same. Innovations were few and far between until the early 1800s, with the biggest improvement in productivity being the introduction of horses and oxen as power. Farming was (and still is) labor intensive work and before the industrial revolution, up to 90% of the American population farmed in order to feed the nation. In the 1830s it took up to 300 hours of labor to produce just five acres of wheat with the hand tools available. This changed during the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. This was a time of great advancement in the field of agriculture as new technologies were developed and used by farmers to increase productivity. These advancements spurred on inventions that would be made in later centuries. African American inventors were among some of those that had a large effect on agriculture and the ways agricultural work could be made more efficient.

Henry Blair

Henry Blair was born in 1807 in Glen Ross, Maryland. Unfortunately, little is known about Blair’s early life. It is assumed that he was not enslaved but worked as a farmer. As a farmer, Blair had first-hand knowledge of what was needed on his farm. His first patent, granted in October of 1834, was for a seed-planter, specifically for corn. This device was meant to be pulled behind an animal, like a mule, and would pierce the ground with its front shovel, drop the seeds in the hole, and then cover the seed with the two back spades. The rake attachment at the end of the planter was designed to remove rocks or large clumps of dirt. Blair received a second patent in August of 1836 for a device used for planting cotton.

Henry Blair’s Seed-Planter - Patent 8447X, Courtesy of Google Patents

Blair was the second ever African American to be granted a patent in the United States and the first to be listed as a “colored man” in the record. On the patent he signed an “x” in place of his name meaning he was probably unable to read or write and had the patent written for him. At the time, all men, enslaved or free, in the United States could hold a patent. In 1858, this law changed after a slave-owner brought the issue to the courts. It was ruled that enslaved people’s inventions were property of their slave owners and their right to be granted patents was revoked. Eventually this law would be overturned, and in 1871 all men were once again granted the right to hold a patent.

George Washington Murray

George Washington Murray was born enslaved on a cotton plantation in Sumter County, South Carolina. Murray’s parents’ names are not known, but Murray had two brothers named Prince and Frank. Though he did not attend school as a child, Murray learned to read and write, eventually becoming a teacher after the Civil War. In 1874, he enrolled in the University of South Carolina at Columbia when the state legislature opened enrollment to black students. After finishing his degree at a different university, Murray returned to his home county and worked as a farmer and teacher.

George Washington Murray, Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

During this time, he obtained a handful of patents for different types of farming tools. His success with these patents gained him recognition in his community and he eventually became interested in politics. He joined the Republican party and became a leader in the Colored Farmer’s Alliance. Murray became a House of Representatives member for South Carolina’s 7th district in 1893. According to secondary sources, Murray once spoke before Congress and read the names and inventions of every black patent holder in the United States. At the time, the country was considering holding an exposition where the Southern states could showcase new technological advancements made since the Civil War. Murray made this speech in hopes that there would be space for Southern African American inventors to showcase their inventions.

Murray himself held patents for eight different types of farming tools. His patent for an improved cotton chopper was granted to him in June of 1894 while he was in office. This cotton chopper made it easier to gather cotton. The machine was used to thin cotton plants by chopping the tight rows of cotton plants to make wider paths. This way it was easier for farmers to come through and pick the cotton from the plants. Before the various iterations of the cotton chopper, this process was done using a hoe and was very time consuming[BN1] . Murray’s other patents include a fertilizer distributor, a stalk knocker, planters, and even a bicycle attachment.

G.W. Murray’s Cotton Chopper – Patent 520888A, Courtesy of Google Patents

Frederick McKinley Jones

Frederick McKinley Jones was born on May 17, 1893 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Jones’ mother was black, and his father was white. At a young age, Jones was sent away by his father and raised by a priest until he ran away as a teen. He did odd jobs until he developed an interest in mechanics. He was never formally educated in engineering but read about the subject and practiced his skills at work. Jones obtained a job in Minnesota doing mechanical work for a farm where he was able to experiment and practice more. During World War I, Jones served as a soldier where reportedly he often helped repair vehicles and machines. Upon returning home from the war, Jones gained an interest in electronics. He was given a chance to hone these new skills when the town where he lived asked him to build a transmitter for their new radio station.

Frederick Jones, Image Courtesy of the USDA

His success with the radio transmitter gained the attention of an entrepreneur by the name of Joe Numero. Numero hired Jones to improve sound equipment made by his business, Cinema Supplies Inc. Jones patented several devices while working under Numero, including an automatic ticket distributor and the first movie projector that played sound. In 1938, Numero sold Cinema Supplies Inc. and started a new enterprise with Jones at his side. The U.S. Thermo Control Company (later known as Thermo King), was founded as Jones created and patented the first refrigerated truck.

Over the course of his life, Jones had over 60 different patents but over half of them related to his most famous work, refrigeration. Jones’s invention of an air conditioning unit for trucks was game changing for farmers. Previously, trucks that transported food were packed with ice that could melt during transit. Jones’ air conditioning unit allowed for much larger trucks to transport food and perishable products across the country or even from overseas. This was beneficial to farmers because their crops and other products could be sold and shipped farther than ever before. Jones went on to use this technology to create portable refrigeration units for the U.S. Military which were used to store blood. Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology by George H.W. Bush for his work.

F.M. Jones – Patent 132182S, Courtesy of Google Patents

The work of these men has had long lasting effects on agriculture and history as a whole. Each of these men created inventions that improved the lives and work of farmers, making tasks more efficient or expanding their productivity. Even in the face of unfair laws, practices, or other racial discrimination, these inventors found solutions to problems facing.

Written by Tess Will

Sources and Recommended Reading

Bellis, Mary. "American Farm Machinery and Technology Changes from 1776-1990." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 3, 2021).

Bellis, Mary. "Famous Black Inventors of the 19th- and Early 20th-Centuries." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 5, 2021).

Bellis, Mary. "History of the Agricultural Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 3, 2021).

Blair, Henry. Seed-Planter. US Patent 8447x, filed September 1, 1834, and issued October

14, 1834. Editors. "Frederick Jones." June 23, 2020. Accessed February 03, 2021. Editors. "Henry Blair." September 23, 2020. Accessed February 01, 2021.

Jones, Frederick M. Air Conditioning Unit. US Patent 132182S, filed April 10, 1941, and issued April 28, 1942.

Murray, George W. Cotton Chopper. US Patent 520888A, filed September 15, 1893, and issued June 5, 1894.

"MURRAY, George Washington." History, Art & Archives. Accessed February 03, 2021.

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