While getting my hair cut earlier this week, I couldn’t help but notice a radio ad that played for Black History Month and listed an African-American as the inventor of the rollercoaster.
I’ve heard this loosely before, and I know that within the last few decades, Black folk have made a habit out of claiming people and accomplishments in an effort to empower ourselves even at the expense of being historically inaccurate.
I wanted to find out just how true this really was. What I found on a brief search through the internet was not one mention of anyone Black in the timeline of rollercoaster ingenuity, but in fact, a discrepancy that would lead to the confusing information. The discrepancy comes from the claim of two Black inventors by the name of Stephen E. Jackman and Byron B. Floyd who developed a ride at a Massachusetts rink in the late 1800’s that set toboggan-style sleds on a track with multiple hills. They claimed to be the very first to use the name and term “rollercoaster”. This has never been documented in history as fact and therefore leads to gray area. But it lends itself to my initial scrutiny being that a loosely stated declaration such as the one of the radio ad that purported to credit Blacks with the invention of the rollercoaster can be taken all the way wrong. Even if the 2 men were indeed the very first to use the term, they are not the inventors of the coaster at all. The original patent for what we’ve come to know as the rollercoaster was granted to a white man named LaMarcus Adna Thompson years earlier, and the prototypical basis of the design comes from Russian constructs from almost a century earlier.
Even more interesting than that, were my findings on yet another Black Man whose name had popped up within the footnotes of my Black History studies, but never fully given his proper light. Granville T. Woods, who has helped in the sophistication of rollercoaster track engineering (particularly at Coney island), is the foremost and singlehandedly most influential Black mechanical inventor of the industrial revolution.
Known casually throughout text as the “Black Edison”, Woods was primarily a self-taught electrician and mechanist. He attended college to sharpen his skills and moved around the world as an engineer until finally settling back in his home state of Ohio and developing patents. Though born a free-man in Pre Civil War America, can you imagine how ridiculously hard it had to have been to be a Black Inventor at the turn of the 19th Century????
As his race played the most important factor in his lack of notoriety and upward mobility, many of his patents were forced to be sold to larger corporations such as the American Bell Telephone Company. In addition to that, he faced a number of legal woes as his White Contemporaries at the time, such as Thomas Edison, made claims to his patents. Ironically, he won against those claims, but ultimately lost when he was the one doing the accusing and served jail time for Criminal Libel.
Like many geniuses in their time, he died broke and under-acknowledged for his contributions to the field of Mechanical engineering and electrical systems. However, not many inventors have resumes that boast such a versatile range.
His patents were usually improvements to existing inventions that have managed to stand the test of time. They include those to an advanced telephone transmitter and the telegraphony, which combined voice and signal messages. This also included patents to an incubator for farms, street car wheel that gave birth to the name “trolley”, and his most famous invention, the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph – which revolutionized electronic railway communication and travel.
Google this man today and learn something new that’s very old…
This has been my Black History Moment