Inventions That Helped Shape Multi-Family Housing by Black Inventors
As we enter Black History Month, we are reminded of the early Black innovators that created some of the major conveniences we enjoy today. These inventions have improved everyday life for us all, despite the intentional roadblocks the Black community has faced in the science, technology, and engineering fields. During the late 1800s, it was exceptionally difficult for Black inventors to gain patents, leading to many contributions going largely unrecognized.
Today, we are celebrating three Black inventors that have largely influenced modern amenities in multifamily housing.
Lewis Latimer: The More Efficient Lightbulb
The same year that Thomas Edison patented the light bulb, Lewis Latimer joined the US Electric Lighting Company in 1880. A year later, while working under Hiram Maxim at US Electric, Latimer patented a carbon filament for the incandescent lightbulb.
This invention significantly improved Edison's bamboo filament that burnt out quickly. Latimer's design was longer-lasting and more durable, making electrical lighting more practical and affordable for the average household.
Despite the many disadvantages Latimer faced in the late nineteenth century, his knowledge and expertise led him to oversee electric plants in several countries, setting up lighting systems in major urban cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. Following his career at US Electric, Latimer joined forces with Edison and became an expert patent investigator and witness for the Edison Electric Light Company. In 1918, Latimer became a founding and only Black member of the Edison Pioneers, a group of employees who worked with Edison in his early years.
Latimer retired in 1924 as an accomplished engineer, draftsman, inventor, writer, and poet.
Alexander Miles: Automatic Elevator Doors
Before Alexander Miles invented automatic elevator doors, they were opened and closed manually by an operator or passengers. This method significantly increased the likelihood of human-error accidents by way of fatal falls.
It was when Miles observed these hazardous design flaws when riding in the elevator with his young daughter, that he became determined to create a design that improved passenger safety. Using a series of levers and rollers, Miles attached a flexible belt to the elevator cage. When touched, the drums are positioned along the elevator shaft, directly above the elevator doors. This mechanism allowed the shaft doors to operate at the correct times and in a much safer fashion than the former manual operation.
His invention was patented on October 11, 1887, and remains very similar to the automatic elevator doors we use today.
David Crosthwait: Heating and Ventilation System Design
David Crosthwait was a skilled mechanical and electrical engineer. His expertise was on air ventilation, central air conditioning, and heat transfer systems. His inventions would pave the way for the modern HVAC system.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Crosthwait invented a vacuum pump, a boiler, and a thermostat control intended to improve heating systems in large buildings. Crosthwait went on to create heating systems for Rockefeller Center and New York’s Radio City Music Hall, two of his most significant accomplishments.
Following these projects, Crosthwait served as technical advisor of Dunham-Bush from 1930 to 1971. After retiring in 1971, Mr. Crosthwait taught steam heating theory and control systems at Perdue University and assisted in revising important texts in the engineering field.
David Crosthwait's innovation and expertise gained him an Honorary Doctorate from Purdue in 1975 and recognition as an ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers) Fellow making him the first Black fellow in the association's history.
Without Mr. Crosthwait’s accomplishments, our modern heating and cooling systems wouldn’t work nearly as efficiently.
These three inventions heavily influenced the affordability, comfortability, and safety we can appreciate in our homes today. We will continue to celebrate and recognize the contributions of the Black community by honoring the unique legacies of creativity, expertise, and technical skills that have shaped the history of American innovation.