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Thursday, November 12, 2015

November 12, 2015: American Inventors: Boykin and Graham

[This coming weekend will mark the 250th birthday of Robert Fulton, about whose influential invention I’ll write in Friday’s post. All week I’ll AmericanStudy some of our most complex and significant inventors—and I’d love for you to share your thoughts on them and other inventors (and inventions) for an innovative crowd-sourced weekend post!]
Two largely forgotten, inspiring and influential inventors, and what links them.
Otis Boykin (1920-1982) was a product of the segregated Jim Crow South in every sense: born in 1920 Dallas, attended the city’s African American Booker T. Washington High School (graduating as valedictorian), and then attended and worked as a lab assistant at Nashville’s historic black Fisk University. After Fisk he moved to Chicago, attending the Illinois Institute of Technology and joining the lab of engineer and inventor Hal Fruth. And then he became one of the 20th century’s most prolific inventors in his own right, inventing more than 25 electronic devices (and patenting 11 of them), including an electrical resistor used in numerous computers and televisions and, most influentially, a control unit that became a vital component in artificial heart pacemakers. Few 20th century inventions have more directly improved and saved lives than the pacemaker, and without Boykin’s contribution it’s entirely possible that the device would never have reached that level of success. Just one of many ways that Boykin transcended, and revealed the ridiculousness of, the imposed limitations of the world into which he was born.
Bette Nesmith Graham (nee McMurray; 1924-1980) seemed destined at an early age for the role of a post-war housewife: dropping out of high school at the age of 17, marrying a young man on his way to service in World War II and having their child while he was overseas, and attending secretarial school in the meantime to help support the young family. But shortly after her husband returned from the war they divorced, and she moved with her son and other family members to Dallas, where she worked as a bank secretary and moved up to the role of executive secretary. And then, inspired both by the difficulty of correcting mistakes with the era’s typewriters and by some extra work she did painting holiday pictures on the bank’s windows, she invented a paint-based white correction fluid—one that she began marketing as “Mistake Out” in 1956 and that became “Liquid Paper” when she started her own company out of her house a few years later. By 1979, when she sold Liquid Paper to Gillette for nearly $50 million, the company had 200 employees and was producing 25 million bottles annually. A particularly vivid illustration of just how far Nesmith Graham had come from the 17 year old wartime bride and housewife-to-be. (Her son Michael went even further, becoming a member of The Monkees, but that’s another story for another post!)
There are lots of interesting details that link these two 20th century inventors—their connections to Dallas, for one example; their very similar birth and death years, for another; and the tragically early timing of those deaths, for a third. Boykin and Graham are also certainly linked, as the structure of my two prior paragraphs illustrates, by the ways in which their life trajectories represented striking breaks from social and cultural limitations and expectations, making their successes all the more impressive to be sure. But I would also highlight another exemplary side to these two figures and stories, one that I would argue defines them as 20th century inventors in contrast with the earlier figures on whom I’ve focused so far in this series: the way in which their inventions were not necessarily as overtly new or innovative as earlier ones like the electric light and the telephone, but represented instead seemingly small advances in technology or business that ended up revolutionizing our world through their contributions. While of course the century witnessed its own amazing innovations, including the computer and the cellular phone, even these were developed out of a series of smaller, gradual and complementary such steps, not at all unlike Boykin’s and Graham’s (and with Boykin’s a part of them). Just one more reason to better remember these two inspiring and influential inventors.
Last inventive post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other inventors or inventions you’d highlight?

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