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Unheralded inventors get due in exhibit


James Ince, who travels with the exhibit, sets up the display of Granville T. Woods, who invented a telephone transmitter in December of 1884.


BLUFFTON - The inventors of ice cream, fountain pens, lawn sprinklers, and traffic signals all have something in common beside their ingenuity.

They were all black Americans who've contributed greatly to our history but are often left out of textbooks and history lectures. The traveling Black Inventions Exhibit, which made a brief stop at Bluffton College yesterday, attempts to change that by raising awareness of the significant contributions black American inventors have made throughout the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s.

More than 100 inventions and numerous patent designs were displayed in the multimedia exhibition that included video documentaries, rare photographs, and personal letters.

Everyday devices people take for granted, such as fire extinguishers, spark plugs, typewriters, mops, and golf tees, were on view along with some brief but fascinating biographies of largely unknown inventors.

“What struck me is the black Edison,” said Kathleen Aufderhaar, acting director of the college library, who viewed the exhibition. “Apparently, [Thomas Edison] wasn't the only guy who invented the light bulb.”

She was referring to Lewis Latimer, who designed a carbon filament that kept a light burning much longer than Edison's filament.

The exhibition is a pet project designed by James Ince of Brooklyn, N.Y. Mr. Ince, a self-proclaimed black historian, said he has taken the exhibit to more than 100 cities, stopping at colleges, universities, elementary, middle, and high schools, numerous conventions, conferences, and expositions over the past six years.

Mr. Ince hopes the exhibit will foster racial understanding, motivate children to use their imagination, and honor African-American contributions to American history. And he said he wants to “promote this information that has been hidden for so long and is so significant. It's very important for everyone. It's not just African-American history; it's American history.”

Certainly the expression “Is this the real McCoy?” has been heard throughout generations, but the story of its origin has been lost during the past century.

Elijah J. McCoy, born in 1843, studied engineering in Scotland and came to America to find a job. No one would hire a black man in that profession, so he took a railroad job shoveling coal and oiling the train's moving parts. Bored by the menial labor, Mr. McCoy invented a lubricator cup, a device that made the train able to lubricate itself so it no longer had to be stopped periodically for maintenance. His product worked so well people wanted no substitutes, leading them to coin the phrase that the cup was the “real McCoy.”

Indeed, some of yesterday's viewers were amazed at how little they knew about who made the door knob, stethoscope, kazoo, Super Soaker water gun, chewing gum, or car phone.

“It's surprising that there were so many inventions by black people that we never learned about in school,” said Karyl Crawford, a Bluffton College library employee, one of about 100 visitors yesterday.

Some visitors were excited to see black inventors getting some recognition. “I'm totally impressed,” said Theresa Henry, who works in the college administration. “A lot of things on display I know about, but it's great to see the inventions and let others see the inventions that have shaped our world.”

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