African inventors helped improve our lives


On January 7, 1890, African-American inventor William B. Purvis of Philadelphia received patent #419,065 for his invention of the fountain pen.

Purvis made several improvements to the fountain pen to make a “more durable, inexpensive and better pen to carry in the pocket”. He used an elastic tube between the pen nib and the ink reservoir that used a suction action to return any excess ink to the ink reservoir, reducing ink spills and increasing the longevity of the ink. The fountain pen has now mostly fallen out of use, replaced by the ball point pen.

I had forgotten about Purvis and the fountain pen as I have not used a fountain pen for several years. He is on my list of African-American inventors who I would occasionally highlight in the African Heritage classes I taught for several years. However, Purvis was not as popular in my classes as Garrett A. Morgan, who invented the traffic lights and the gas mask.

I thought about Purvis at the Kwanzaa celebration on Thursday, December 31, 2009 as we were celebrating Kuumba (Creativity). As we were discussing the creativity of Africans, which includes the creativity of our inventors, several names were mentioned including Morgan and Dr. Charles Drew, who revolutionized the storage of blood, blood transfusions and the establishment of blood banks.

Ironically, Drew, a brilliant African-American surgeon/scientist, lost his life because after being involved in a car accident in 1950, just two months before his 46th birthday, he was refused the treatment he had pioneered because of the racism practiced at the nearby White hospital. Drew, Morgan and Purvis are only three of many African-American inventors whose inventions have contributed to the quality of life that we enjoy today in the 21st Century.

Sistah Afiyah, who also taught in the African Heritage Program at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), reminded those of us at the Kwanzaa celebration of a modern African-American scientist whose genius contributes to our ability to communicate through the Internet.

Dr. Philip Emeagwali, an Igbo from Nigeria, has been dubbed “Father of the Internet”. It was his formula that used 65,000 separate computer processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second in 1989. That feat led to computer scientists comprehending the capabilities of supercomputers and the practical applications of creating a system that allowed multiple computers to communicate. Emeagwali’s genius gave birth to the supercomputer and the rest is history.

Here, in the second decade of the 21st century, the fountain pen and the ball point pen have given way to the computer but many Africans have been involved in the improvement of humans communicating through writing.

Contrary to much misinformation, Africans have been writing for more than 5,000 years using various writing instruments and writing systems.

In his 1997 published book Ethiopic, an African Writing System: Its History and Principles, Professor Ayele Bekerie of Cornell University writes: “Writing is a means by which people record, objectify and organize their activities and thoughts through polygraphs in order to facilitate and ensure existence, growth, nurturing, creativity from generation to generation”.

Obviously, Africans were recording their activities and thoughts using systems of writing.

Professor Bekerie also writes of the link between the Meroitic writing system of the Kushites in the Sudan and the Ethiopic writing system of the Ethiopians proving that Africans did not inherit a system of writing from any of the people who invaded their land.

Ethiopic is an African writing system designed as a meaningful and graphic representation of knowledge and proof of the contributions made by Africans to world history and culture.

The Nigerian Nsibidi is an indigenous writing system which originated as an esoteric form of knowledge understood by a select group of people, mostly members of a secret society in south eastern Nigeria which some sources link to the Ejagham and later spread to Efik, Igbo, Ibibio, Efut, Annang and Banyang speaking areas.

Some of the Nsibidi system of writing spread to the Caribbean and Brazil during the slave trade. There were several African communities with their distinctive systems of writing centuries before the invasion of the continent by non-Africans.

In the 1992 book, Thunder and Silence: the Mass Media in Africa, by Dhyana Ziegler and Molefi K. Asante, the writing system of the Shumom people of Cameroon in West Africa is discussed.

Much of what Africans have achieved is hidden when we are educated in a White supremacist education system which does not recognize or value us as a people. We have an obligation to ensure that we educate ourselves and that our children are educated about our history and culture in the schools that they attend which are supported by our tax dollars.


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