Black Engineering: History and Stolen Patents from the Perspective of a Black Engineer

Every year at 3DEXPERIENCE World, the thing we look most forward to is meeting our users face to face. Certainly one of our favorites this year was meeting Eric Timmons, an engineer and SOLIDWORKS user, and his wife, Erika, who together created a 28-video series for Black History Month, featuring many black engineers and some of their many historic accomplishments in engineering.

The couple owns two companies: Black Hand Design, an industrial and mechanical design firm, and E5Productions, a video production company. During his 20-year-long engineering career, Eric has long been the only black engineer and/or designer in his department, a reality that has caused disappointments and discrimination throughout his career. His goal with Black Hand Design is to encourage and mentor other young black engineers.

Erica, his wife, of 30 years, has been in the film industry for nearly 15 years and is now in school earning her degree in Cinematography. Erika’s production company is called E5Productions. Together they are building what they hope will be companies that will empower people of color to tell their stories and propagate the continued growth of all touched by their business.

Learning from history

During our interview with this dynamic duo, Eric shared his motivation for all the effort that went into the project. “I have, more often than not, been the only minority in a department or in a building. I won’t go into how uncomfortable those times were but after all these years, I’ve been able to turn that into motivation. I want to ‘Flip the Room,’ to ensure that Black engineers coming out of college and into the field of engineering have a clear path that will lead to their success while reducing the anxiety felt by the feeling of ostracism.”

Erika added that the work that went into the project was far more challenging than she thought from the onset. “I understood that conducting the research for these American Engineers would be challenging. What I was not prepared for was the lack of information available for these brilliant men and women. It was so convoluted that one picture was often attributed to more than one person. I often felt overwhelmed and disappointed in the how irreverent Black history has been recorded in this country.” Erika went on to say that despite the disappointment she experienced that she was proud of the project and hoped that people would use the series as a learning tool.

Let’s take a closer look at each of just a few of these engineering pioneers and their respective discoveries that changed the world. Please note that the video links provided will take you to the videos created by Eric and Erika’s collaboration.

Augustus Jackson

Augustus Jackson was born on April 16, 1808, in Philadelphia, PA.  Jackson became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Philadelphia, acquiring his fortune making ice cream. Although ice cream has been around since the 4th century B.C., originating from Persia, Jackson is known for his ice cream making technique and his inventive ice cream recipes. That innovative ice cream manufacturing technique led to his unprecedented success.

Historically ice cream recipes used eggs, but Jackson devised an eggless recipe. He also added salt to the ice, mixing it with his new flavors and cream. The salt made his delicious flavors taste better and lowered the temperature of the ice cream. It also allowed it to be kept colder for a longer time, which helped with packaging and shipping. Jackson’s technique is still used today.

Jackson packaged his ice cream in metal tins and sold them to ice cream parlors owned by other Blacks in Philadelphia. His many flavored ice creams became popular and sold for up to $1 a quart. Up to this point ice cream was affordable only to the rich. Jackson’s new technique reduced the cost of production and made his “Philadelphia style” ice cream affordable to the masses.

There is no evidence that Jackson patented his ice cream-making techniques nor of any of his recipes surviving until today. He shared his ideas with the five other Black ice cream parlor owners in Philadelphia, most of whom found similar success with ice cream making well into the 19th century.  Unfortunately, racial prejudice drove most of them out of business.


Philip B. Downing

Philip B. Downing was born in Providence, RI, on March 22, 1857, the son of well-known abolitionist and business owners George T. Downing and Serena L. deGrasse.  Philip grew up around influential black leaders.  His grandfather, Thomas Downing, was born to emancipated parents in Virginia. His grandfather was a successful businessman and played an important role in founding the United Anti-Slavery Society of the City of New York in the mid-1830s.

In 1890, Downing patented an improvement to electrical switch for railroads, which allowed railroad workers to supply or shut off power to trains at appropriate times. Based on this design, innovators would later create electrical switches such as light switches

Phillip is best known for his invention of, what he called, the street letter box. It was a sturdy metal box made from metal and had four legs. His letter box, known now as a mailbox, included a feature that prevented bad weather, such as rain and snow, from damaging the mail. It also included a safety feature that made the mail secure until it was picked up by postal employees.  This invention was awarded a patent on October 27, 1891.

25 years later, in 1917, Downing, received a patent for an envelope moistener, which was a roller with a small water reservoir to quickly moisten envelopes and stamps. The following year, he invented a new type of desktop notepad.


Mary Kenner

Mary Kenner was born on May 17, 1912, in Monroe, NC. Mary was an inventor of numerous products we use today and has the most patents of any African American woman. Kenner’s first patent was in 1957 for the sanitary belt.

The sanitary belt was intended to prevent the leakage of menstrual blood on clothing. The Sonn-Nap-Pack Company got word of this invention in 1957 and contacted her intending to market her invention. When they discovered that she was black, they declined. Unfortunately, because companies were so reluctant to work with her, her patent expired, allowing manufacturers and buyers to use the sanitary belt and sell it off as their own. This meant that Kenner never actually made any money from the sanitary belt.

Not to be defeated, Kenner patented an attachment for walkers and wheelchairs that included a hard-surfaced tray and a soft pocket for carrying items. Mary and her sister invented a toilet paper holder that they patented in 1982.

Her final patent, granted on September 29, 1987, was for a mounted back washer and massager.  Kenner didn’t receive any awards or formal recognition for her work, however, her inventions and contributions helped pave the way for subsequent innovations.


Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan, born March 4, 1877, was an inventor and businessman from Cleveland best known for inventing a device called the Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector in 1914, an invention later dubbed the gas mask.

Morgan is considered one of America’s greatest, if least-known, inventors. Besides the safety hood, he’s also credited with the invention of the three-position traffic signal and a hair straightening product.

In 1914, Morgan was awarded two patents for the invention of an early gas mask, and he manufactured and sold it nationally and internationally through the National Safety Device Company, or Nadsco, using a marketing strategy to avoid Jim Crow discrimination—what historian Lisa Cook calls “anonymity by dissociation.”

At the time, entrepreneurs sold their inventions by conducting live demonstrations. Morgan appeared in these events to the general public, with municipal fire departments, and city officials representing himself as his own assistant—a Native American man called “Big Chief Mason.” In the South, Morgan hired whites, sometimes public safety professionals, to stage demonstrations for him. His newspaper advertisements featured smartly dressed white male models.

The gas mask proved very popular: New York City quickly adopted the mask, and, eventually, 500 cities followed suit. In 1916, a refined model of Morgan’s gas mask was awarded a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

On July 25, 1916, Morgan made national news for using his gas mask to rescue men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel located 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. No one had been able to reach the men. Eleven of them had died as had ten others attempting to rescue them. Called in the middle of the night six hours after the incident, Morgan and a team of volunteers donned the new “gas masks” and brought two workers out alive and recovered the bodies of 17 others. He personally gave artificial respiration to one of the men he rescued.

Afterward, Morgan’s company received many additional requests from fire departments around the country that wished to purchase the new masks. However, the national news contained photographs of him, and officials in a number of southern cities canceled their existing orders when they discovered he was Black.


Both Eric and Erika were simply a joy to interview, and it is our hope that they will continue to create content that will bring people together through education, engagement, and enlightenment. For more from them, you can listen to their podcast, More Than Memories on Buzzsprout. You can also follow their respective companies on Erika’s Facebook, or Eric’s Facebook, Instagram, and Erika’s LinkedIn  or Eric’s LinkedIn.



Barb Schmitz

Barb Schmitz

Senior Marketing Communications Manager at SolidWorks
Barb Schmitz is a Senior Manager in Marketing Communications with BA in Journalism and over 30 years of experience in the CAD software industry. She started her career as a journalist covering technology and served as an editor for several leading industry publications for over 20 years. Besides being a sleuth of tech, she is a loyal dog owner, travel bum, mom, lover of hoppy IPAs, red wine, and alternative music lover living in the great city of Chicago.