1876 – Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone

It is arguably one of the most transformative inventions of all time: the telephone is on a par with the wheel or the taming of fire in terms of its effect on our society.

It all starts here. Alexander Graham Bell had been wroking on the telephone for three years already at this point, and he was not the only one. Indeed, his closest rival, Elisha Gray, filed for his patent on the same day Bell did (February 26). But it was Bell who got the patent, and who went on to make millions from it.

The famous first successful phone call actually took place 3 days later, on March 10, and Bell never looked back. Which is in some ways unfortunate, as his belief in eugenics would not have been nearly so influential had he not been so rich.

Still, he transformed everything – you wouldn’t be reading this today, on a computer or a mobile phone, without him.

Referenced in:

Alexander Graham Bell — Sweet
Alexander Graham Bell — Richard Thompson

1914 — Garrett Morgan patents a gas mask

Although understandably primitive by modern standards, Morgan’s gas mask – or safety hood as he called it – was a considerable improvement in the state of its particular art.

Morgan, a black man in a racist age, had been inspired by reports of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to create gear that protected the wearer from smoke and other noxious gasses. Although he got his patent, his invention was slow to catch on, and Morgan’s race was probably the major reason why.

His fortunes improved after the safety hood achieved national prominence in 1916, when he and three others used it to save the lives of two men trapped in a tunnel. For this Garrett was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland, and additional gold medals for bravery from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Lack of recognition never held Morgan back – he also patented an early traffic light design, among other creations – but it was not until 1963, shortly before his death, that white America gave him the recognition he deserved.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder