published Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Inventors' Inventions: New exhibit at Bessie Smith highlights black inventors and their creations

Some of the items
on display at the
“African American
Inventors” exhibit at
the Bessie Smith
Cultural Center include
tools such as the tiller
and the lawn mower.
Some of the items on display at the “African American Inventors” exhibit at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center include tools such as the tiller and the lawn mower.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • photo
    James West's research led to the development of the foil electret microphone, which is used in microphones and telephones.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Above is the display marking the improvements that inventor Lewis Latimer made to the filament of the light bulb.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    The gas mask was among many inventions by Garrett Morgan.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Benjamin Banneker invented the first American clock.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

What do Garrett Morgan, Lewis Latimer, Lonnie Johnson and Benjamin Banneker have in common?

They're black inventors whose creations range from Morgan's invention of the gas mask and traffic light to Latimer's improvements to the filament of a light bulb, Lonnie Johnson's Super Soaker water gun and Banneker's first American clock.

Each of these men's inventions, as well as those of other black inventors, are currently on display at the "Bright Ideas' African American Inventors" exhibit at Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Made up of panels and artifacts, the exhibit showcases both inventions and inventors inventions that have also contributed to the fields of aerospace, health care, communication, science, engineering, agriculture and transportation.

"This exhibit has been a really fun one to install and research," says Carmen Davis, the center's curator and program director.

Curated by historian John Edwards, president of the Chattanooga's African-American newspaper, the Chattanooga News Chronicle, the exhibit highlights the contributions of black inventors and their extraordinary accomplishments, Davis says.

"Mr. Edwards has done an outstanding job of really showcasing a range of items that can speak to a variety of people," Davis says. "What I have noticed most about the reaction from guests who tour this exhibit is the sense of pride and the spark of curiosity about what else have people of the African diaspora created? There is an instant feeling of discovery and exploration that is inherent with this exhibit."

Edwards will give a gallery talk on May 20 at 6 p.m., Smith says.

Still while educating the public about the inventors is one of the exhibit's goals, Bessie Smith staffers, including Davis, are learning themselves.

"I even added items to the exhibit that I learned about while doing research," Davis says.

While researching inventors, Davis says she became fascinated with Gerald Lawson's contributions to the home video gaming industry. Lawson, an engineer, is known for his work in designing the Fairchild Channel F video game console that allows removable game cartridges, Davis says.

"He revolutionized the gaming industry and made way interchangeable gaming systems," she says. "After learning about him, I took my own money to purchase game cartridges used with the Fairchild Channel F console to include in the exhibition. I knew people, especially children, who are technology driven, needed to know about this inventor and his invention."

Davis says the exhibit may be more "tangible" than other exhibits displayed in the past or present at the museum.

"There are things featured in it like a Super Soaker (water gun), rolling pin, telephone, dust pan -- that people utilize now," she says. "They have an instant connection with these items that changed the way we communicate, run our households, travel, etc."

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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