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African-American Entrepreneurs

A number of other individual African-Americans made particularly important entrepreneurial contributions, often on a national or international scale.

Beard's Breakthroughs

Andrew Jackson Beard (1849-c.1921) invented and patented a rotary engine in 1892. A former slave, he also developed new kinds of plows for farmers. He received another patent for his most famous invention, the Automatic Railroad Coupler, known as the Jenny Coupler. This allowed cars to be connected by simply being bumped together. Previously, a worker had to position himself between the two cars, and then drop a pin through two holes at just the right moment. The procedure was the cause of many accidents, often fatal. Beard himself lost a leg as the result of such an accident. The Jenny Coupler revolutionized railroad practice.

The Real McCoy

Another self-taught African-American engineer became the inspiration for a phrase that entered the English language. Born in Canada, Elijah McCoy (1844-1929) be-came a railroad fireman in the United States. He invented the lubricator cup, which, although little remarked by the general public, allowed machines to be oiled in use. It was a major contribution to the Industrial Revolution. When imitations came on the market, they were dismissed as not “the real McCoy,” or genuine article.

A Scientist Steps Up for Southern Agriculture

One remarkable man straddled the worlds of business and science in a way that few Americans have and deserves notice for achievements in both areas.

George Washington Carver (1864-1943) won worldwide fame, in part because he offered an irresistible media angle. Carver, among the most acclaimed scientists of his era, was a former slave whose scientific advances revolutionized a southern farming economy that was in deep trouble in the 1890s and the years following.


How prominent was George Washington Carver? As one of the most renowned scientists of his era, Carver was in demand as a researcher (and, let's face it, public relations icon). Among the people who offered him jobs—and won publicity for doing so—were Thomas Edison and Joseph Stalin. He turned them both down.

Teaching and researching at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver developed a number of vegetables from limited roles as home-table foods to large-scale crops. Two that became mainstays of the southern economy were the peanut (from which he developed 325 products) and the sweet potato (108). He invented Carver's Hybrid cotton, a more resilient strain of the original plant. Holder of three patents, he introduced over 100 industrial uses for various agricultural entities.

In 1896, when Carver began the most momentous phase of his career, peanut production was so low that its production was not even formally measured. By 1940, it was the South's second-largest cash crop.

Carver's patient, methodical work and commitment to research that benefited others set a high scientific—and human—standard. “Anything will give up its secrets,” he once observed, “if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people.”


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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