African American Inventors

Joseph Lee and Jan Matzeliger were African American inventors during the Industrial Revolution.

Besides being African American inventors, they had something else in common. They all lived in Boston, Massachusetts.

It is difficult for inventors, at the best of times, to succeed. There are many challenges to overcome.

But these pioneers also had to surmount racial prejudice in a post Civil War era. The American Civil War led to the abolishment of slavery.

Slavery precluded African American inventors from being recognized as citizens. African American Inventions were refused patent rights and the inventors could not enter into contracts.

With slavery abolished, these inventors pursued their dreams.


If you were an inventor during the industrial revolution, the place to be was Boston.

There was a large concentration of instrument makers and machinists that immigrated to Boston. They became the prototype makers for new inventions - hundreds of them.

There were over forty patent firms operating amongst the prototype makers, as well as financiers who were interested in investing, marketing and distributing inventions.

Boston is where Samual B. Morse had his telegraph invention made, where Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone. It is where Gillette invented his disposable razor, and where Thomas Edison created his first invention.

It was a mecca of innovation - all in one location - all happening at the same time.

It was the reason William Barton Rogers founded MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston. It was also the birthplace of many African American Inventions.

Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee was born in 1849 in Boston, Massachusetts. As a young boy he worked in a bakery. He progressed to food preparation and became a baker.

He then became a cook - then managed a restaurant - then owned a restaurant - then owned two restaurants and a catering company. Joseph was a successful entrepreneur. He built his career based on great food, great service and a sound business plan.

He then used his skills to invent solutions to a couple of needs in the food industry. He invented a bread making machine, that made bread faster, cleaner and more efficiently than a half dozen bakers.

He also invented a machine that created bread crumbs from loaves of bread.

Joesph licensed his inventions to manufacturers and his machines were sold around the world.

Joseph Lee was not only a pioneer among African American Inventors, he was a pioneer in the food preparation industry.

Jan Matzeliger

Jan Matzeliger was an African American inventor who moved to Boston from Philadelphia. Jan worked in a machine shop making shoes.

Shoes were made by hand and a good cobbler could make fifty pairs of shoes a day. But Jan believed a machine could be made that would help make shoes faster.

He invented a machine that allowed a cobbler to make 700 pairs of shoes a day. He patented his invention in 1883 and licensed it to the United Shoe Machinery Corporation of Boston. All across America shoes dropped in price due to the labor savings from his new invention. As a pioneer of African American Inventors, Jan Ernst Matzelinger, was honored on a postage stamp in 1991.

Lewis Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer was a born in 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the son of escaped slaves from Virginia. He worked with his father hanging wallpaper until he was 16 before joining the Navy to fight in the Civil War.

After the war, he returned to Boston and found a job running office errands for a patent firm. He was literate and liked to draw. He was fascinated with the work of draftsmen who prepared drawings of inventions.

Lewis read everything he could about the craft and practiced it on his own time. One day, he asked if could try preparing a drawing. His talent was obvious and the law firm made him a draftsmen.

He excelled at it and became an inventor as well, inventing and patenting a locking rack for coats, and a toilet apparatus for trains. But it was his next series of inventions that got him a lot of attention. He was hired as a draftsman for the U.S Electric Lightning Company and he invented electric lamps for them.

This made Latimer well known and Thomas Edison hired him as the chief draftsman and patent expert for his company, which became General Electric.

Lewis often appeared as an expert witness in patent lawsuits concerning electric lighting. He is a member of the Edison Pioneers, the select group of 28 individuals who worked on the Edison inventions. Among African American Inventors Lewis Latimer was the only one that worked with Thomas Edison.