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On RideKC: African American Inventors Exhibit

Date:February 01, 2017
On RideKC: African American Inventors Exhibit

Did you ever wonder who designed the first refrigerated trucks? Or maybe you’ve mused about something less groundbreaking, like who invented the Super Soaker water gun? A new exhibit at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center sheds light on African American inventors of the past and present. RideKC to the Bruce Watkins Center, 3700 Blue Parkway in Kansas City, Mo., on the 47 Broadway-47th Street or the 85 Paseo.  

The exhibit African American Inventors features the works from the 1800s up to the modern day across all fields: healthcare, technology, entertainment, and more. There is even a special section on the products of youth inventors.  

Here are just a few highlights from the free exhibit:

Annie Malone made her mark with hair products, basing her company in Missouri. Her high school education focused on chemistry. Her first product was Wonderful Hair Grower, developed in the late 1800s. Malone moved to St. Louis and successfully sold her products door-to-door. She eventually founded Poro College to train women to be beauticians and sales agents. Her St. Louis-based factory and mail-order business employed more than 200 people in the 1920s.  In 1930, the college was moved to Chicago.

Hair styling tools and products

Lonnie Johnson graduated from Tuskeegee Institute with a degree in nuclear engineering. He worked on space programs including the Galileo and Mars Observer projects. But Johnson’s invention of the Super Soaker is a bit more accessible. The idea was the happy result of a plumbing mishap when Johnson was working on his home refrigeration system. Since its creation in 1989, sales of the Super Soaker have reached $1 billion.

Super Soaker

Frederick Jones holds the patent for refrigerated trucks, making it possible to ship a great variety of fruits, vegetables and other foods without them spoiling. Jones was a self-taught mechanic who served as a U.S. Army electrician in France. After his military service, he worked for a movie equipment company. It was here he invented the refrigerated truck. The invention has such great potential that Jones’ boss Joseph Numero created a new company, now known as Thermo King, to manufacture the refrigeration system. Thermo King heating and cooling equipment is in use on many transit buses, including RideKC buses.

The majority of the exhibit is made up of display boards that tell the story of the inventor and the impact of their inventions, so allow for plenty of time to read the narratives. Patent documents are included for many inventors, for those who want a more technical look at the devices. Several of the inventions are also displayed, including vintage video game cartridges, medical devices, beauty products, and toys.

The exhibit opened Jan. 19, and continues through March 2. It was created by the Institute of Black Invention and Technology. Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Early video game