By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune
Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have a rich heritage of invention and innovation. Our region’s industrial and cultural diversity, strengthened by the mass migration of Europeans and African Americans, has played a role in making us an incubator for new ideas.
With 45 US patents granted to his name, Granville Woods (1846-1910) is among the most significant African-American Inventors of our region, as well as the United States. Known as “the black Thomas Edison,” Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1846. He completed college electrical and mechanical engineering courses in 1878. A genius, inventor, and businessman, Woods arrived in Cincinnati in 1880 and eventually moved to Lynn Street in Covington.
Woods’ most significant patented inventions were induction telegraphy (US Patent 373,915), also known as multiplex telegraphy, and an improvement in railway telegraphy (US Patent 373, 383) in 1887. The induction telegraph patent was the first that operated while trains were moving, making it possible for them to communicate while in transit. He founded the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati and eventually built a similar plant in Newport.
Woods manufactured electrical and mechanical products, such as switches telegraph systems, and appliances. In 1890, he moved to New York City, where he patented additional inventions, including the third-rail technology still used today by many electric-powered transit systems throughout the world, Woods was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.
Another African-American National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee was Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961), born in Covington and raised in Cincinnati. Jones invented the first successful mobile refrigeration devices for trucks and trains, keeping fresh produce and meats from spoiling. His patented invention, Air Conditioner for Vehicles (US Patent 2,303,857) in 1942, replaced the earlier—and less effective— method of using ice and salt for transporting foods. This invention vastly expanded successful food-delivery distance, allowing fresh produce availability year-round and nationwide.
Jones cofounded the Thermo King Corporation to produce his mobile refrigeration devices. During World War II, he invented mobile refrigeration to permit blood plasma delivery to the war’s Pacific theater. In 1991, Jones became the first African American to be awarded the National Medal of Technology.
Most famous for his stain-resistant, lemon-scented composition (US Patent 4,714,562 with co-inventor Brian Roselle) used in Cascade® liquid detergent, Dennis W. Weatherby (1959-2007), was a regional inventor, scientist, educator, and employee of Procter & Gamble. He inspired new generations of innovators while at Northern Kentucky University before his untimely passing in 2007.
Weatherby’s fascination with consumer product innovation dated to his childhood, when he was intrigued by identically shaped Pringles® potato crisps. He was awarded a football scholarship to Central State University, a historically black institution in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he graduated with a BS in Chemistry in 1982. He completed an MS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Dayton in 1984 and then joined the P&G engineering team. Weatherby subsequently completed his PhD in Educational Psychology at Auburn University in Alabama, the state where he was born.
As an instructor at Central State University’s International Center for Water Resources Management, Weatherby increased recruitment of minorities by 400 percent. He evidenced similar passion for student minority successes at Auburn University, the University of Notre Dame, and eventually as Associate Provost for Student Success at Northern Kentucky University.
As founding director of Auburn University’s Minority Engineering Program, Weatherby turned Auburn into one of the nation’s top schools for African-American engineers. Auburn’s Alumni Association honored Weatherby with a Minority Achievement Award in 2000. Today, Auburn offers the D.W. Weatherby Academic Excellence Annual Scholarship in its College of Engineering.
To learn more about our regionally famous African Americans, see the recently published books Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (Clerisy Press, 2015), The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), and The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, (University Press of Kentucky, 2009).
John Schlipp (email@example.com) is Intellectual Property Librarian and Associate Professor of Library Science at Northern Kentucky University’s W. Frank Steely Library. John is Director of NKU’s IPAC (Intellectual Property Awareness Center).