Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, April 30, 2010

Vivien Hamilton: surgeon-janitor

Creation: Spring & Easter
Sense make before book. (Grenada, Tobago)

A sister-author‘s comment on yesterday’s post led me to Vivien Thomas. She wrote, “Hamilton Naki is the Vivien Thomas of South Africa. Wow!!! When will we get our just due?”

When, indeed.

Like Naki, Thomas assisted a white surgeon, Alfred Blalock, in animal research. Like Naki, in a time or place without segregation Thomas would have been recognized everywhere for his medical research and his surgical skills. With no little education and no formal medical training, both men performed operations, did post-doctoral research, and trained student surgeons while holding menial positions: Naki as a gardener and Thomas as a janitor.

Thomas and Blalock worked together to disprove the theory that medical shock resulted form toxins in the blood. Their research into the causes of shock saved lives of thousands of soldiers in battle. At the same time, Blalock and Thomas worked on experiments that were to revolutionize heart surgery.

When Blalock became Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins in 1941, he asked for Thomas join his team. Thomas then became the only Black employee (except for janitors) at Johns Hopkins. The appearance of this Black man in a white lab coat created as much confusion as his surgical skills without a medical degree.

When a paediatric heart surgeon sought a cure for blue baby syndrome Thomas had the answer. He created the blue baby condition in a dog, and then corrected the condition through surgery. Thomas worked on the process for about two years, operating on 200 dogs. Blalock performed the surgery only once, as Thomas’ assistant. Thomas therefore needed to direct Blalock step by step when the surgeon used the procedure for the first time on a child. At Blalock’s insistence, Thomas stood at his right shoulder for his first 100 operations on blue babies.

The medical world hailed the blue baby surgery as a breakthrough, and neither Blalock nor Johns Hopkins acknowledged Thomas’ contribution. Indeed, Johns Hopkins did not accept its first Black surgical students for another thirty years. Thomas continued to be so poorly paid that he sometimes worked as a bartender, often at Blalock’s parties. Lines between the two men may have been blurred in the lab, but the distinctions were reinforced in the medical school (low pay, separate bathrooms and entrances) and on social occasions. Johns Hopkins raised Thomas' salary and appointed him senior lab technician only when, in 1946, Thomas threatened to resign to return to carpentry.

Thomas (August 29, 1910 – November 26, 1985), grandson of a slave, was born in Louisiana and grew up in Tennessee. He wanted to become a doctor, and tried to earn money for his education by working as a carpenter and an orderly. The 1930s depression wiped out his savings and ended his dream. Thomas had difficulty finding permanent work of any kind, and was a janitor when Blalock hired him as laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt medical school. Within three days of his employment, Thomas was performing surgery on dogs. He tried to enter college again in 1950, but gave up on medical studies when his years of experience could not go to his credit.

Thomas’ partnership with Blalock lasted 34 years, and his work in surgical research continued for 15 years after Blalock's death. One of the many surgeons Thomas trained said of him, “Even if you'd never seen surgery before, you could do it because Vivien made it look so simple.”

In 1971, Thomas’s former medical students commissioned a painting of Thomas to be hung next to Blalock’s painting at Johns Hopkins. In 1976, Johns Hopkins presented Thomas with an honorary Doctor of Laws (not Doctor of Medicine), and in 1977 Thomas became an official member of the Johns Hopkins medical school faculty.

Thomas' story inspired the PBS documentary, "Partners of The Heart" and the HBO film, "Something The Lord Made."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Naki – South African surgeon gardener

Creation- Spring & Easter
Knowledge is like a garden: if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested. (Guinea)

Hamilton Naki’s work helped to bring about the world’s first heart transplant. Contrary to myth, he was not present when Professor Christian Barnard carried out the operation, because Black men were not allowed in white hospital rooms in apartheid South Africa. However, Naki’s skills in animal research paved the way for heart transplants on human beings.

In the late 1950s, Barnard’s hospital employed Naki to maintain the grounds and tennis courts. He was later sent to work at the medical school, cleaning the animals’ cages – work people avoided because it is so messy. One day, a professor of surgery asked Naki to help hold a giraffe on the operation table; as a result of the competence he showed, researchers gradually allowed Naki to do more serious work.

Naki proved to be a skilled surgeon and anesthetist. In particular, he had surgeon’s fingers and did open heart surgery, pulmonary bypass, and heart and liver transplants on dogs. He was skilled in the post-operative care of animals, and he was able to do almost all the work of a qualified surgeon. Indeed, Barnard thought Naki did a better job of stitching than surgeons including Barnard himself. Naki taught transplant techniques to about three thousand young surgeons who studied under Barnard.

Naki gained his surgical skills because of his intelligence, memory, and capacity to learn by observing and practice in secret. The hospital promoted Naki to the highest position possible for him under apartheid law – senior lab technician. Nonetheless, when he retired he received a gardener’s pension.

Barnard acknowledged Naki’s work only after apartheid ended, when he referred to Naki as. “one of the great researchers of all time in the field of heart transplants.” Naki’s work as Barnard’s principal assistant was particularly important when Barnard developed arthritis in his hands.

Naki (26 June 1926 – 29 May 2005) was born in rural South Africa and migrated to
Cape Town when left school at 14. He had only sixth grade education, and could not have received medical training under the apartheid system. While he worked with Barnard, he lived in a Black township where he had no electricity or running water. Most of his wages went back to his village to support his extended family.

During his retirement, Naki organized a mobile clinic for his rural community that was 50 miles from the nearest doctor or hospital. In addition, he organized support for schools with funds collected from doctors he had trained.

In 2002, Naki received one of South Africa’s highest honors – the presidential award of the Order of the Mapungubwe. In 2003, the University of Cape Town awarded him an honorary medical degree.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dr Drew invested in blood banks

Creation: Spring & Easter
Blood follow vein. (Jamaica)

Early experiences led me to associate going to the blood bank with hot chocolate given to us to compensate for the pint of blood we gave up. The technicians often sent me away with all my blood still in my veins, because I was often low on iron. My visits were often voluntary, but very frequently I would be giving blood for a friend or family member in crisis. Mostly I would avert my eyes from the blood leaving my body, but a little halo would take shape over my head at the thought that I might have saved someone life. Besides, controlled bloodletting could well be good for our health.

Blood banks have been saving lives since Dr Charles Richard (June 3, 1904 - April 1, 1950) began a system of preserving blood plasma. Drew, medical doctor, surgeon, and researcher, was born in Washington DC. His prowess at track and football helped him gain a part scholarship at Amherst College. Indeed, he was a coach between leaving college and attending medical school at McGill University (Montreal, Canada) and Colombia University (New York City).

Drew researched blood transfusions, and started the idea of blood banks for long term storage of blood plasma. He directed the US Blood for Britain project send blood for British soldiers and civilians in the event of a German invasion in 1940. He later became director of the blood bank for the National Research Council, collecting blood for the US army and navy. He also created the model for today’s Red Cross blood banks, and also helped set up the UK’s blood bank system.

When the US War Department’s issued a directive to separate blood from black and white donors, Drew resigned his position in protest. Drew lost his job as director when he protested a. Drew said, “the blood of individual human beings may differ by blood groupings, but there is absolutely no scientific basis to indicate any difference in human blood from race to race."

Dr Drew died in 1950 after a car accident. A US postage stamp was issued in 1981 to honor him.

Let's further honor him by scheduling an early visit to the nearest blood bank.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Garret Morgan lights our way

Creation: Spring & Easter
Doing one's best drives away regret. (Malagasy)

When I was growing up, policemen controlled traffic at intersections. Some directed traffic with such style – on horseback and with white gloves – that the operation felt like theater. Today’s traffic lights may be more efficient, but they lack the drama of those Jamaican policemen with flashing fingers, emperors decreeing when we could go and when we must stop. Police appear at junctions now when the power goes and traffic lights are blank, but they seem more like interludes than the main act.

Garrett Augustus Morgan (March 4, 1877 - August 27, 1963) invented the traffic lights that impact so much on the lives of road users today. Morgan was the first Black man to own a motor car in Cleveland, Ohio, and he saw at first hand the many crashes between the early motor vehicles and pedestrians, cyclists, animal-drawn wagons, and other gasoline-powered motor vehicles.

Morgan invented his version of traffic signals after he witnessed a collision between a car and a horse-drawn carriage. He created a mechanical traffic light that could be operated form a distance, an improvement on over the manually-operated versions then in existence. The patent was granted in 1923, and Morgan’s traffic signals were used around the world till the red, amber, and green lights were introduced.

Another of his inventions also contributed greatly to public safety. In 1912, Morgan received a patent for a a gas mask that he used to rescue men trapped in an underground tunnel. Soldiers in World War I used a refined version of his gas mask.

He was born in Kentucky to parents who were former slaves. He attended school while working on the family farm, and had no formal education beyond elementary school. When he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, he worked as a sewing machine repairman and began to experiment with ways of improving his trade. He opened his own sewing machine repair shop in 1907. His success in business enabled him to buy a home and a car.

His wealth did not protect him from the race prejudice of the times. Active in Black organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he worked for change in race relations from about 1914 until his death in 1963.

Before his death, the United States Government awarded him a citation for his traffic signal

Sunday, April 25, 2010

George Crum - Chips from a long ago block

Creation: Spring & Easter
Concerning food, there is no adult. (Uganda)

For some of us, joy is a bag of chips and a book, a bag of chips and a movie, a bag of chips and salsa. Or just a bag of chips, any flavor. We owe our pleasure to George Crum and his annoyance at one of his customers.

George was a chef at the Moon Lake Lodge resort in Santiago Springs, New York. In 1853, a guest ordered French fries from George’s restaurant. This delicacy, briefly renamed Freedom Fries in the US when France refused to support the Iraq war, had been popular since the 1700s. The potatoes would be cut lengthwise, lightly fried, and then eaten with a fork.

“Too thick, and not crisp enough,” said the customer, sending George’s French fries to the kitchen.

So George fried up another batch. The child of a Black father and a Native American mother, he had previously been a trapper. His exceptionally cooking skills had earned him the job as chef, and he resented complaints about his food. He therefore conceivably used choice words to describe this overly fussy customer.

“Still too thick. And definitely not crisp enough,” said the customer.

George clearly had other meals to cook, and he needed to end this customer’s demands on his time and patience. He therefore decided to teach the customer a lesson by sending back an inedible meal. So he sliced the potatoes as thin as paper, and friend them as crisp as tree bark. He hoped to annoy the customer further by making the fries greasy and impossible to eat with a fork. He also added excess salt.

“Wow!!” said the customer this time. “Delicious!!”

Soon, other restaurant guests demands these new treats as well. George’s “Saratoga Chips” were so popular and profitable that he opened his own restaurant with a basket of chips on every table.

George never patented his idea, and other entrepreneurs carried the concept to success. Today, potato chips are arguably a favorite snack inside and outside the US.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lewis Latimer: the light touch

Creation: Spring & Easter
A candle burns itself out to give light to others. (Africa)

I value electric light the most when I lose it, as when the power was off in my house for eight weeks following Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Today even if the power is off for a few hours, many of us feel unable to function. We owe a lot to Lewis Latimer.

He was born in 1848 to George and Rebecca Latimer who fled Virginia to escape slavery. When Lewis was a child, slave catchers held George and threatened to return him to the slave master. His adopted community in Massachusetts raised $400 to buy his freedom, and George took his family into hiding out of fear of being re-enslaved. So Lewis Latimer grew up poor, and with virtually no formal education.

Latimer enlisted in the navy during the American Civil War. He was only 15 years old at the time, and so he forged the age on his birth certificate. When he left the navy, he went to work as an office boy for solicitors who specialized in patents.

Latimer taught himself to draw, and became so skilled that he drafted the drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application. He then went to work with the U.S. Electric Light Company, Bell’s main competitor. Here he invented a method of making filaments to improve the quality of electric lamps. He also supervised the 1881 installation of electric light in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.

In 1884, Latimer started working as draftsman for Thomas Edison. He was a draftsman and assistant manager, and the only Black person in the engineering division of Edison’s company. He was also Edison’s expert witness in his many lawsuits related to electric lights.

Besides being an inventor, Latimer was a poet, artist, writer, and flautist. Some of his mechanical drawings were as beautiful as works of art, and he wrote a book of poems as well as the first book on electrical lighting.

For his genius in helping to start up the electric light industry, Latimer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Henry Blair - inventor who couldn't read or write

Creation: Spring & Easter
A bird can't know where the corn is ready to eat unless it flies. (Burundi)

We rightly celebrate our highly educated family members, those who earn higher degrees often at great cost. But what of the contributions from family members who could not read or write?

A friend recently told me she discovered her grandmother was illiterate only after her death, because she had signed her will with an “X”. Henry Blair’s “X” was also the sign that he could not even write his name when he filed his patent application.

Blair was born in 1807, the year before Britain ended its involvement in the slave trade. As far as we know, he lived in Montgomery County, Maryland. Some say he was a slave who found ways to work secretly on his inventions. Others say he must have been a free man, or else he would have been unable to receive a patent. We know he was Black because patent records identify him as a “colored man”, the only inventor referred to by race.

His corn seed planter allowed farmers to increase their profits by planting corn faster and with considerably less labour. He also invented a cotton planter.

Blair died in 1860, testimony to giving wings to our ideas no matter our personal limitations.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Clean and free - Thomas Jennings

Creation: Spring & Easter
A pretty face and fine clothes do not make character. (Congo)

The sitcom with the Jeffersons (who moved on up to the East Side) probably made many of us notice dry cleaning, even if just as a backdrop to the show. Otherwise, if you are like me, you probably look at the label, drop off the item at the dry cleaner’s if it is not washable, and then return to pick it up hoping for the best. Further, if you are like me, you may not have known about Thomas Jennings who created the process that today we take for granted.

Jennings was born in 1791 as a free Black man. He went into the tailoring business and did so well that he was ultimately able to open his own store. People came to him to make or alter their clothing. Some fabrics could not be washed, and so his customers would either wear the item soiled or else discard it. Replacing the clothes was great for his business, but he was concerned about how his customers felt to have to throw away clothes they liked.

He tried out different methods of cleaning without laundering. He tested a range of cleaning agents on fabrics till he found the process that we now call “dry cleaning”. At that time, he called it “dry scouring”.

Jennings made a fortune from his 1820 patent. If he had still been a slave, his owner would have reaped the benefits of his invention.

With his first profits he bought his family out of slavery, and he used later profits to fund abolitionist activities. He was assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the People of Color that met in Philadelphia in June 1831. When Jennings’ daughter Elizabeth was forced off a public bus in New York City, he hired a prominent law firm to represent her in court. Elizabeth won the case.
Jennings died in New York City in 1856.

Visits to the dry cleaners are about to take on new shape for me, a celebration of a man who was inventive as well as caring.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Baby slings ancient and modern

Creation: Spring & Easter
A child who is carried on the back won't know how far the journey is. (Nigeria)

When I lived in Ghana, I carried my babies on my back like other mothers around me. Women in many cultures invented this method before the current “baby wearing” trend.

I had twin babies, and when the pressure was on, I would have one baby secure on my back, and the other in my arms. Or I would carry one till he slept, and then put the other one to sleep in the same way.

I can’t remember my babies crying when they were close to me on my back. They could perhaps feel as cushioned and connected as when they were in the womb, moving around with me, feeling my emotions, hearing my heartbeat, and listening to me speak. In addition, they could watch people’s faces, and generally view the world from just below my shoulders. What suited me best about this method was knowing staying close to my baby while having my hands free.

Strapping on my baby was a skill I had to learn. I would lift my baby onto my back, with his feet on either side of my midriff. Then I would balance him on his stomach, bending so I would be just about parallel to the ground. Now I would briskly pull a large piece of cloth over the baby on my back, bringing the two ends tightly across my breasts. I would secure my baby by knotting the ends of the cloth, or tucking them in so tightly they would be unlikely to come undone. Then I would tuck the other side of the cloth under my baby’s bottom, and bring both sides around so I could knot the cloth just above my waist. Then I would stand, with my baby pressed to my back, his head, arms, and legs free. If one set of knots or tucks loosened, the other set would keep my baby in place till I could adjust the cloth. Little girls manage to keep babies firmly on their backs, but curves help a lot in keeping the baby secure.

A woman called Ann More has contributed to the current popularity of the “baby slings” that even celebrities are wearing these days. Despite her protests, she is termed the “inventor” of this way of carrying a baby.

Moore was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo when she noticed the bonding between mothers and babies carried on the back. She returned to the US and wanted the same closeness when she had a daughter whom she named Mandela. Her attempts to secure her daughter on her back did not work well, as the baby kept slipping. So Moore and her mother designed a baby carrier that was similar to those Moore saw in Togo. Baby Mandela, on her mother’s back, took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr.

Encouraged by people’s admiration for the baby carrier, Moore patented the idea in 1969. She and her husband formed a company to introduce the Snugli sling to the US market. Today, these slings are made of all kinds of styles and materials, with or without hoods, designed to be worn on the chest or on the back. Even men now wear baby slings.

And women of Africa, Asia, and original communities of the Americas continue to wear their babies on their backs as they have done over centuries of multi-tasking as hard-working mothers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dr Patricia Bath - right to sight

Creation: Spring & Creation
To have two eyes can be cause for pride; but to have one eye is better than to have none. (Guinea)

Just a week ago, my 79-year-young aunt had an eye cataract removed. Most Black seniors are likely to have cataract problems (clouding of the vision), and they will most likely benefit from the work of Patricia Era Bath.

Bath received a patent in 1988 for a version of a laser device to remove cataracts. She was born in Harlem, New York, in 1942 to Rupert Bath, a seaman, and Gladys Bath. Her mother scrubbed floors to send Bath to medical school.

She graduated from Howard University School of Medicine in 1968. She then worked as an intern at Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic, followed by a fellowship to Colombia University.

Early in her career, she noted that poor Blacks in America suffered a much higher rate of blindness than whites. She therefore created a system to test vision and screen for problems such as cataracts and glaucoma. She also persuaded some of her Colombia professors to provide free eye surgery to blind patients at Harlem Hospital. With Bath’s help, the Black American community significantly benefited from a reduction in eye disease and blindness

In 1977, she was co-founder of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB). This body gives hope to seniors as well as newly-born who have conditions that could lead to blindness. The work of the AIPB is based on the belief that sight is a human right.

Sexism and racism may have slowed Bath’s career but could not derail it. She was the first African-American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center and the first woman to be on the faculty of the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1988, she was elected to Hunter College Hall of Fame in 1988 and elected as Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine in 1993.

I give thanks all those who, like my aunt, can exercise their right to sight thanks to Dr Bath's work.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jan Matzeliger brings lasting joy

Creation: Spring & Easter
With shoes you can get on in the midst of thorns. (Jamaica)

The price tag on a pair of shoes often determines whether we take the shoes home, though many of us will make the sacrifice for comfort and fashion. We have Jan Ernst Matzeliger to thank for an invention that made shoes affordable, especially in countries where going barefoot is not a wise option.

Jan spoke no English when he first arrived in the United States. He was born in Surinam, South America, the child of a Dutch engineer and Black woman who was a slave. He learned about machinery while an apprentice in his father’s shop. Jan left Surinam in 1871 when he was 19 years old, and worked as a sailor for two years before settling in Philadelphia He worked at odd jobs before moving to Massachusetts in 1976.

He settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, where shoe making had started as a cottage industry and developed into factory production when the first shoe-sewing machine was introduced in 1848. Workers could make about 200 pairs of shoes by machine, but the bottleneck came with “lasting” - attaching the shoe upper and the sole. That job was done by hand, and many believed it could not be done by machine.

But not Jan. He watched the manual workers and tried to duplicate their activities mechanically with scraps he took from the factory. He created a simple machine in six months and his employer offered him $50 for it. Jan refused the offer. He took four years to create a machine from scrap iron, and this time rejected a $1,500 offer for his updated invention.

After ten years of experiments, Jan was ready to patent his invention on his own terms. His first drawings were so complex that the Patent Office had to send someone to see how the machine worked. On March 20, 1883, he received a patent for a lasting machine that would revolutionize the shoe industry. It would produce a finished shoe in one minute. Two years later, Jan’s machine was in factory use.

Jan seemed to have been a loner, with churchgoing his only known social activity. Mainstream churches rejected him on the basis of race, so he joined North Congregational Church where he could worship freely. On his death, he left much of his estate to his church. Years later, the church took itself out of debt by selling stock bequeathed by Jan.

He died at age 37, before he could enjoy the benefits and see the impact of his invention. Factories could now produce up to 700 pairs of shoes in a day, compared with 50 pairs at most by hand lasting. The machine cut manufacturing costs by half, and brought down the cost of shoes.

The US Postal Service issued a stamp in Jan’s honor in 1991.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The rail McCoy

Creation: Spring & Easter
The train doesn't wait for the passenger. (Mozambique)

I love traveling by trains – the scenery, the space to move around, the knowledge that I don’t have to take of my shoes and my luggage won’t get lost. A couple of days ago I passed the now abandoned train station in Kingston, Jamaica, and remembered the excitement I used to feel at the start of a journey from Kingston to Montego Bay. These days, I take my train journeys when I visit the UK or the US, and my best treats are the relatively long train trips like London to Edinburgh or Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Black inventor Elijah McCoy contributed significantly to railroad travel. He invented a system of lubrication that served engines so well that some say people would demand “the real McCoy”. Others say that term existed long before Elijah put his stamp on it. They say the original McCoy was a Scotsman called “McKay”, or else a boxer or a rum runner also called McCoy.

But my best McCoy, my real McCoy is Elijah.

He was born in 1843 or 1844 in Canada. He was the child of slaves who left Kentucky and traveled north by Underground Railroad. His father joined the British army since Canada was a British colony at the time. For his service, he received 160 acres of farmland on which he raised his family of twelve children.

Elijah’s ambition was to be an engineer, and he went to Scotland for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. By this time, his family had moved back to the US because slavery had officially ended. They settled in Detroit, Michigan. However, racism prevented Elijah from getting a job as an engineer, and he settled for work as a railroad fireman and oiler. As a fireman he had to shovel coal into the train’s firebox, and as an oiler he had to lubricate the moving parts of the train in order to prevent over-heating.

In 1872, Elijah received a patent for a device that would lubricate the engine of a moving train. Before that, the train had to come to a full stop for the oiler to do his work. With this invention, railroads saved time and money as train engines lasted longer and needed less maintenance. Even ships and transatlantic liners adopted Elijah’s lubricating cup.

In 1915, he upgraded his invention with a lubricator that saved on fuel and reduced wear and tear on engines. By this time, other inventors were offering lubricators comparable to Elijah’s, but none was “the real McCoy”.

Investors in Elijah’s inventions earned millions of dollars, but not much of that money reached him. He suffered mental and financial breakdown, and died in an infirmary in 1929. Almost fifty years later, Detroit honored him with a street named after him, and an Elijah McCoy Day.

Those of us who love train journeys would also do well to honor this man.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Woods: Freedom to Invent

Creation: Spring & Easter
You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom. (Malcolm X)

Granville T. Woods was an extraordinary inventor. He was born to free Black American parents in 1856 and left school at ten years old. He then worked with his father on jobs that gave him a lifelong interest in improving the US railroad system. Some say he attended college as a young man, but no one can say exactly where or when.

Woods studied other workers and asked them to explain engineering concepts to him. He ultimately worked as an engineer, but he was allowed to rise just so far because of the color of his skin. He moved on to form his own company in 1884. His partner was a brother who was also an inventor.

One of Woods’ best known inventions was a telegraph station that allowed train stations to communicate with moving trains. Dispatchers could then prevent accidents because they would know exactly where to find each train.

Alexander Graham Bell’s company then bought the rights to this patent, thus giving Woods the income to be a full-time inventor. Thomas Edison then claimed to be the inventor of this new system, and he sued Woods. Edison lost one lawsuit, filed another, and lost again. He then tried to gain control over Woods by offering him a top opposition in his firm. Woods said no, preferring to keep his freedom and rely on his own resources.

Many of his sixty inventions focused on increasing efficiency and safety on the railroad. He sold some of his inventions to corporations such as General Electric and American Engineering.

Woods died in 1919.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Paper chaste

Creation: Spring & Easter
A wise man without a book is like a workman without tools. (Morocco)

Early man and woman were paperless. Cave walls were great for recording their thoughts, but definitely not mobile. Later, the Sumerians (ancestors of today’s Iraqis) stored their ideas on clay tablets that were heavy but movable with effort. Another disadvantage was that the tablets would break up and lose information.

The Egyptians created sheets from papyrus from which we get the word “paper”. The material came from a plant that grows on the banks of the Nile, and making the paper was difficult work. Jotting down ideas on the spur of the moment was not an option.

About two thousand years ago, the Chinese made paper from hemp. They soaked it, beat it to a pulp, and dried the mixture in a mold. Then they had sheets on which people could write. Paper took another thousand years to reach Europe, and became very popular when Gutenberg invented the printing press in the fifteenth century.

Until late in the nineteenth century, almost all documents (including the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence) were printed on hemp paper.

Cannabis, from which hemp is made, became illegal in 1937. The newspaper industry at that time decided that paper made from wood pulp was more economical. William Randolph Hearst of the Hearst Corporation had his own forests that he could cut down to make paper for his business, so his newspapers pushed a media campaign to criminalize cannabis.

Since hemp was outlawed, the US has effectively lost 70 per cent of its forests. So, like our ancestors, we seem on the way to being paperless again. Unless hemp inches its way back to being legal once more.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Our debt to the wheel

Creation: Spring & Easter
The noise of the wheel don't measure the load in the cart. (Belize)

Whoever invented the wheel deserves to be the world’s most famous person. He or she was a potter who lived in Mespotamia (today’s Iraq) almost six thousand years ago.

Scientists have found remains of very early pots in China, North Africa, and South America. If people could store water, they were less dependent on living next to water sources. If they could store food, their surplus grain could last them through the winter or in times of famine.

These early pots were handmade, and probably fired in bonfires or in holes dug in the ground.

The wheel brought about a revolution in pottery. Specialist potters could now “mass produce” pots to meet the needs of the worlds first cities, such as Ur in Mesopotamia.

Only later was the wheel used for transportation. The ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians had wheeled chariots.

The wheel made possible inventions such as the clock and the astrolabe sailors use for navigation.

Ultimately, the wheel helped to bring about the Industrial Revolution, with steam engines, railroads, factories, and later airplanes and automobiles.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fire unbound

Creation: Spring & Easter
The one tending the fire is most likely to be singed. (South Africa)

The earliest human beings could see fire when the sun burned dry leaves, when lightning struck a tree or when two rocks hit each other. People might have carried out their own experiments - like rubbing two pieces of flint - or they may have started out with pieces of burning wood from spontaneous fires.

Because fire brings joy as well as danger, legends suggest that the gods were reluctant to entrust people with fire. Native Americans believe an animal like the coyote, wolf, or woodpecker stole fire and delivered it to people. Africans, like the San of South Africa, also say animals provided people with fire. A Pacific legend says fire came from a trickster who was part god and part mortal. According to the Greeks, the Titan Prometheus lit a torch at the chariot of the sun, and gave people fire so they would be superior to animals. The gods punished him for this act.

People believed that the gods showed themselves through fire, speaking from burning bushes or flashes of lightning. Fire could therefore produce respect or terror. Flames could scare off animals, and create weapons to kill or tame them. People could warm themselves at the fireside and therefore be less subject to climate change. Cooked food (especially meat and fibrous plants) was easier to digest, and gave energy with less work. The extra time and energy may have helped people to be that much smarter than animals. Fire might also have encouraged groups to stay together to get the fire started, keep it going, and sit close to each other and benefit from the warmth and protection of the fire. In addition, fire allowed people to see at night.

In early days, fire was used to clear forests for planting, to heat stone to make more sophisticated tools, and to burn clay to make water containers. Scientists have found burnt objects, about 200,000 years old, at archeological sites in South Africa, Israel, and China.

Today we may take for granted the joy of fire, as almost all of modern industry relies on fire. But we are never allowed to forget that we still have lessons to learn about controlling fire.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Eve and Mrs Ples in South Africa

Creation: Spring & Easter
You need to take care of the root in order to heal the tree. (Gullah)

A South African Eve and her son seem to have been searching for water when they fell through a hole in a cave just under two million years ago. They remained undisturbed till 2008 when scientists found them. Click here

The years have been kind to the pair, and the bodies are complete rather than in fragments of skull and teeth that may or may not belong to each other. Eve and her son have big noses and strong hands that could have made tools. Scientists say that their long legs and the shape of their hips suggest they walked much the same way we do today. The son even left behind a fragment of his brain.

Mrs Ples is even older than the South African Eve. Her skull is all that was found of her in 1947, though a skeleton found close by may have belonged to her. Scientists say she is more than two million years old, and could be related to the Ethiopian Lucy (Dinkinesh). Her gender is currently a matter of speculation, and some believe she may really be Mr Ples.

In 2004, she voted 95th on the Great South Africans Top 100 list.

Mrs (or Mr) Ples and the South African Eve and her son lived in The Cradle of Mankind, declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. Scientists have traced mankind's first use of fire to this area.

Some current references:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Tanzanian Adam and Eve - Leakey discovery

Creation: Spring & Easter
Inquiry saves a man from mistakes. He who makes no inquiry, gets himself into trouble. (Yoruba)

The “Zinj” is a fossil found in Tanzania in 1959. The discovery of this cranium proved (to those who wanted to believe it) that human life began in Africa over three million years ago.

Foot prints preserved in volcanic ash, found in 1978. showed that the first human beings stood upright in Africa almost four million years ago. These were footprints of what seemed to be a man, woman, and child.

Until a few days ago, I gave Louis Leakey all the credit for finding these artifacts. Then I found out that Mary Leakey was the person who found the “Zinj” and later discovered the oldest human being in Oldupai(Olduvai) gorge in Tanzania.

Mary never earned a science degree, but she was arguably the better and the more dedicated scientist than her husband. He was the more charismatic, sometimes reckless in his claims. On the other hand, Mary required rigorous scientific proof before coming to a conclusion.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lucy (Dinkenesh) of Ethiopia – our common ancestor

Creation: Spring and Easter
Anywhere you find a road, people have passed there before. (Africa)

Lucy, whose Amharic name is Dinkenesh (“You are beautiful”) is a skeleton of a woman found at Hadar, Ethiopia. Anthropologists say all humanity originated from Lucy’s genes, and that she is about 3.2 million years old.

American anthropologist Donald Johanson was re-checking a gully, already visited twice by other workers, when he found fragments of Lucy’s body. The bones showed she was less than four feet tall, and the pelvic remains indicated that she was female. She had a pubic arch similar to modern woman. Among Lucy’s most striking features were her knee and her spine, signifying that she was accustomed to walking upright.

Today, you can find Lucy at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. Some of her fossils are currently on tour of the USA.

Lucy pre-dates the Adam and Eve story by at least a couple of million years. As the common ancestor of all human beings, she also challenges concepts of racial superiority. If we accept this archeological finding, we are all either Africans or descendants of Africans. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Shilluk story: Even-handed Creator God

Creation: Spring& Easter
God has only one measure for all people. (Haiti)

Juok is the Creator-God of the Shilluk peoples who live in Sudan on the west bank of the Nile.

Juok molded human beings out of clay, and he traveled all over the world to collect material. In Egypt he found the mud of the Nile, and so created red or brown people. In northern countries he used white earth or sand to create white people. In the land of the Shilluks, Juok created black people from the dark-colored earth on the banks of the Nile.

Human beings took time to create. First of all, Juok said, “These people will need to work, so I will give them legs so they can walk and run.” So the bodies were all legs.

“They need to grow food,” he said. So he gave humans one arm to hold the hoe, and the other to pull up weeds.

“They look clumsy,” Juok said. “They need to see what they are doing.” So he gave them two eyes.

“Crops are of little use if humans can’t eat the food they grow,” he said. “I will give each person a mouth.”

“They need to be able to celebrate the harvest,” he said. “They need to dance and speak and sing and shout for joy.” He then gave each one a tongue.

“But how will they dance and hear each other speak and sing and shout if they can’t hear?” Juok asked himself. He therefore gave each human being ears.

He then declared his job was done, and his creation of humans – red, brown, white, black – was perfect.

Efik story: creation and freedom to choose

Creation: Spring & Easter
If you rely on someone else's soup pot, you go to bed hungry. (Ghana)

According to the Efik people of Nigeria, their creator-god Abassi, made the first man and woman. At first, all lived in heaven.

“They must remain here with me,” Abassi said to his wife Atai. “Forever.”

“But you have made earth so grand," Atai said, “that one man and one woman will have more than enough room there. Heaven is for gods.”

“But when they think I can't see them,” Abassi said, “ They will do exactly what they like. They will forget about all I have done for them.”

“You were the one who insisted on giving them freedom to choose,” Atai said, “Now you must be satisfied with what they decide to do.”

Abassi and Atai argued some more, and finally Abassi gave in.

“Let me remind you, dear Atai, that this is your idea. So any problems will be yours to solve. By yourself.”

Still, Abassi tried to stay in control. He gave the man and the woman strict rules. They could not grow food or hunt animals. They had to eat all their meals with him so he could always keep track of what they were doing. Most of all, they could not have sex and so could not increase their numbers.

The earth was fertile, and seeds grew where they fell. The woman started to grow food so she and the man could eat what they wanted, when they wanted, and where they wanted. The man and the woman were so happy not to have to depend on Abassi that they stopped showing up in heaven for meals.

The man started to help the woman in the fields, and one thing led to another. Before long, the man and the woman had a family, and all their attention was on their life on earth.

“I told you this would happen,” Abassi said to Atai. “They are so happy now that they have forgotten that I gave them life. Next thing they will think they are as wise and strong as me.”

“Hmmm.... They are certainly acting as if they know it all," Atai said.

“I shouldn’t have listened to you.”

“And when did you ever do anything that you didn’t want to do in the first place?" Atai asked. “You could have dried up the earth and forced them to come back to heaven to eat.”

“No matter what you say, this is your fault,” Abassi said. “Man and woman now have children and grandchildren. They are so happy with each other that they don’t even listen to me no matter how loudly I speak.”

"Could you be jealous?" Atai asked.

"Of course not," Abassi said. "But if they find so much joy on earth, none of them will need to come to heaven."

Atai thought about that for a while. She and Abassi had positions to maintain and space in heaven to fill.

“Not to worry,” Atai said. “I will fix it so men and women will beg to return to heaven.”

So Atai sent death to earth so people would have to lose their lives in order to re-enter heaven. She also sent discord to keep men and women fussing and quarreling and pleading every day with Abassi to help them find peace.

Abassi missed the days when the man and woman lived happily with him in heaven, but Atai's solution once again put him in control of earth as well as heaven.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Gourd - source of Taino life

Creation: Spring & Easter
However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source. (Yoruba)

According to a Taino creation story, Yaya, the Great Creator, kills his son Yayael whom he loves but whom he fears may replace him. Yaya puts the bones in a gourd that he hangs on the roof of his house. But he misses his son, and asks his wife to take down the gourd so he can see Yayael again. They find that the bones have become large and small fish, and they decide to eat the fish to sustain themselves.

Deminan and his three brothers visit Yaya. The four are quadruplets, two sets of twins born to virgin goddess Itiba Cahubaba. She died before they were born, and they were cut from her womb.

The brothers walk on the clouds and over the blue skies of the Caribbean. They visit Yaya's house in his absence, and discover the gourd hanging from the roof. They begin to eat the fish from the gourd, and try to hang up the gourd when they hear Yaya returning home. They fumble and the gourd falls to the earth. It breaks and lets out enough water and fish to create seas and oceans.

The brothers use the two halves of the gourd as canoes, and they travel across the waters. They use turtle shells to create islands, clay and stars to create men, and river manatee to create women. Some also say Deminan had children with a sea turtle, and these became the first human beings.

Other Taino people say human beings came from two caves that were always dark. One day the guardian forgot to close the caves, and the humans escaped into light from the sun. The sun captured some of these people and turned them into plants, and birds.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Mayan Corn People

Creation: Spring and Easter
Remember the rain that made your corn grow. (Haiti)

According to the Maya, God wanted to make man before the first day dawned. First he made them out of mud. But these mud people were soft and limp and when they got wet they could not stand up. They could talk, but their words made no sense. So God broke them up and decided to try again.

God next chose wood. These men could at least stand up straight. They could walk and talk; they were able to build houses and look after themselves. But they did not look right. They had no hearts and therefore no expressions on their faces. They were unfeeling and forgetful, beating their dogs and burning the bottoms of their pots. Besides, they had no memories, so they didn’t know how they were made or who made them.

So God destroyed the wooden people in a great flood.

Finally, God ground corn into corn meal. He mixed the meal with water, and with the dough he made four men to whom he gave the gift of knowledge. While they were asleep, he made four women, so when the men woke up, each had a wife.

The cornmeal couples thanked God for giving them life, and the ability to see, hear and understand all that was around them. They could see so much and so far, that God decided to limit their vision to what was closest to them.

Finally the sun could come up, because there were human beings to enjoy the dawn.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Genesis stories

Creation: Spring & Easter

Knowledge cuts up the world. Wisdom makes it whole. (Brazil)

Everybody who read dem Bible know dat God make heaven and earth from de start. Nothing at all was on earth, no shape or form. Just pure darkness. So God say, “Let there be light”, and that is how light come. And de part dat never have light, God call it “night”. So now we have day one.

Next day, the light show God dat everywhere on earth was just water, deep deep water. So him take de sky and separate water from water.

Third day now, God bunch up de water in some places, and him call dat “sea” and “ocean”. The dry part God call “land”. Him like what him see, and decide to put plants and trees on the land. So when you eat mango and banana, and when you enjoy a pot of rice and peas, you must never forget where dem come from. Dat's why we always give thanks before we eat.

By day four, God make de sun as de light to rule de day, and the moon to rule de night. And him say dat is how to mark de calendar with day and month and year.

Next day, God make fish and bird. Him make animal dat wild and animal dat tame.

The sixth day, God create man and woman. Him mek dem de boss of everything, from what fly and swim to what run and crawl. Plus, God give man and woman every kind of tree dat bear fruit and plant dat carry seed, so dem can eat and thrive.

By the seventh day, creation done, and God take a rest. Dat is why we keep de Sabbath holy and go to church and worship God on dat day.

What I tell you here is de complete truth. Except for this next part how God create the first man and woman, Adam and Eve.

God take dust from the ground and make man. Then he breathe life into man's nose and man come alive. God make a garden dat him call Eden, and him put man in it wid every pretty tree and fruit tree dat you can think of. Included in de garden was a tree of life and a tree of good and evil. Some say de garden create first, and some say man create first. Eden did also have a river to feed de plants and give man water to drink.

Now God tell the man to look after the garden and eat everything him see except for fruit from the tree of good and evil. "You will surely dead if you eat dat fruit," God say. Man also get birds and tame animals, but him don't satisfy. Him want a companion.

Well, God make man go to sleep, take out one of his rib, and dat is how woman form. The two of dem naked, but dem don't feel no shame.

And dat is how man and woman get into the garden of Eden. How God come to run dem out is another story.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cherokee rise from water - creation story

Creation - Spring & Easter
You do not know the extent of waters you haven't been to. (Zanzibar)

Cherokee flag

To the Cherokee, the world began with water and sky. The animals lived above the sky, and no people existed. When the animals decided they needed space to expand, the water beetle volunteered to see what he could find under the water. He dived deep down, right to the bottom, and all he found was mud. As he brought the mud to the surface of the water, the mud started to get larger and larger. The earth was formed, but it was soft and soggy. The animals therefore attached it to the sky by four ropes, in the hope that the land would become dry.

A bird went down to check on the land, and came back to say it was still too muddy and too flat. By the time great buzzard flew over the land, he could see it had become solid. He flew in to look more closely – some say he was just tired – and the wind from his wings created mountains and valleys. The Cherokee say that is why their territory is so mountainous.

The animals climbed down to earth on a rainbow, and pulled the sun from behind the rainbow to give them light. However, the sun was in one spot, and it burnt some of the animals because it was just too hot and bright. So the animals put the sun in the sky, and made a path for it to travel to so everyone could share the light.

The Creator-God put plants on the earth, and told the plants and animals to stay awake for seven days and seven nights. Some animals, like the owl, managed to follow the instruction, and they received the gift of being able to see in the dark. Among the plants, those that stayed awake, like the pines, were able to keep their leaves during the winter.

People were made last of all. The first man hit the first woman with a fish and told her to multiply. At first new babies were born after just seven days. Later, because people feared multiplying too fast, women could have only one child in a year.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Yin and Yang of creation

Creation: Spring & Easter
The world is a big place, but God is the creator. (Ghana)

Pan Ku

Missa Chin who have de Chinese shop say de world start wid one black egg. In fact, everything else was pure darkness dem time.

Pan Ku born out of de darkness. He never have anything else to do, so he sleep and sleep for bout eighteen thousand year. Who was to wake him, and what he was to wake up for?

When he get tall like ten coconut tree, the egg get too tight that he wake up. As he stretch and turn over, he break the egg in two. The top part of the egg light and clear, and it fly up in the sky to become heaven. The bottom part cold and thick, and it fall down to become earth. When you hear bout yin and yang, two sides that make a whole, you know what Missa Chin talking bout.

Pan Ku born with hammer and chisel in his hand, his head touching the sky and his feet on the earth. He use his tools to keep the two part of the egg from joining up again. A magical tiger, dragon, phoenix, and tortoise help him with his work for another eighteen thousand year. They make sure heaven and earth can never ever meet.

Finally all that work wear out Pak Ku and he die. But as the old life leave him, his body take on new life. What was his breath become wind and clouds. His voice become thunder. The light from one eye become the sun, and the light from the other eye become the moon. His body and two foot and two hand turn into the five mountain of China. Out of his blood come sea and river, and his hair become tree and shrub and every kind of plant. His bones change to rock and his muscle to fertile ground. His sweat give us rain and dew, and his marrow become jade and pearl. When he happy, sun shine, and when he sad, cloud hide the sun.

Since he never bathe all those thousands of years, he have parasite on his body. So flea and lice turn into animal and human being.

So Missa Chin say.


When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at