For Black History Month, we would like to spotlight four African American inventors who managed to persevere within the industries of science and innovation during slavery and segregation. Notably, these were fields of study that the black community had little access to. Yet, all four of these men modernized the foodservice industry in ways we benefit from every day.
Surmounting Daunting Challenges That Began Centuries Ago
During segregation, the African American community were blatantly excluded from the science and innovation disciplines. Economics professor, Lisa Cook, researched how segregation laws made it difficult for African Americans to patent their inventions. “The offices of patent attorneys were in ‘white-only’ commercial districts, hindering African American inventors from applying for patents.” Professor Kara Swanson duly notes that many African Americans “sold the rights to white men in part because they didn’t have the money to develop or because they were worried that people wouldn’t want to buy what they were inventing.”
Discriminatory patent laws were just one injustice African American inventors had to battle to see their visions come to life. To be certain, the scientific disciplines were far from fair. Scientific practices have been used to justify the systemic racism African Americans faced even within their own field of study. Systemic racism prevails today in the scientific community; a growing movement for inclusion, however, is making waves. The call for inclusion is partially inspired by the brave individuals who paved the way forward, including Alfred Cralle, John Stanard, Dr. Lloyd Hall, and Joseph Lee.
Born: 1866 in Kenbridge, VA
Invention: The ice cream scoop
Alfred Cralle was born in Virginia shortly after the Civil War ended. A businessman and inventor, Alfred Cralle discovered his interest in mechanics at an early age. First, he attended a school set up by the Baptist Home Mission Society for newly freed African Americans. After graduating, he settled down in Pittsburgh, PA and made history.
While working in a hotel, he observed people constantly struggling to dish out ice cream with a spoon. Basically, ice cream would stick to the spoon or ladles used by servers. Moreover, this method required servers to use two hands. Cralle intuitively knew this inconvenient and slow process could be improved upon with some simple ingenuity. And he set out to do just that.
In 1897, Alfred Cralle received patent #576395 for his original design called the Ice Cream Mold and Disher or what we’ve come to know as an ice cream scoop. His simple, yet ingenious mechanical feat solved the problems servers encountered while working with ice cream. Chiefly, his ice cream scoop included a built-in scraper, required one hand to operate, and ice cream did not stick to the metal.
Cralle’s winning equation of durability, ease of operation, effectiveness, and affordability was a winner. Moreover, his scoop required little to no maintenance: there were no delicate parts that were prone to malfunctioning or breaking. Consequently, he invented a perfect instrument that others have failed to improve upon in the 125 years since its inception. This perfect design in still used in homes and restaurants today, making it easier to dish up one of everyone’s favorite treat.
Born: 1868 in Newark, New Jersey
Inventions: Improvements to refrigerators and oil stoves
John Stanard (also referred to as John Standard) modernized refrigerators and stoves with practical and useful changes.
In 1889, Jon Standard created a space-saving design addition to oil stoves. The purpose of the redesign was to improve how buffet-style meals were served on trains. Later, this improvement would turn out to be the fundamental design for today’s portable catering stoves used in buffets, weddings, parties, and events.
Stanard went on to make massive functionality improvements in 1891 to the then “ice box” in several ways. First, he changed the central cooling unit into a manually filled ice chamber. Second, he added cold airducts and perforations to strategic areas to ensure constant air circulation. This kept food fresher, longer. Lastly, he added a dedicated space for drinking water, so that it wouldn’t pick up the essence (aka odor and taste) of the other food stored inside. His invention also included a tap on the front of the refrigerator, that provided cold, fresh water.
Little is known about the rest of Stanard’s short life or cause of death. Sadly, he died around the early age of 31. We do know he beat the odds and fought institutionalized racism to bring about these inventions that we, over 100 years later, all benefit from.
Born: 1894, Elgin, IL
Inventions: Food preservation methods
Patents: Over 100 worldwide
A food chemistry pioneer, Lloyd Hall made several innovations to food preservation and sterilization that revolutionized the way the foodservice industry operates. His very long list of accomplishments range from Consultant for the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to Technical Director and Assistant Chief Inspector of High Explosives and Research for the U.S. Government during World War I.
While Lloyd Hall was a pharmaceutical chemist for Griffith Laboratories in Chicago, his efforts were devoted to solving a number of problems:
Meat packing: When Hall began his research, the popular yet unreliable technique of salt preservation left many people with a bitter taste in their mouth. He developed a combination of salt with little crystals of sodium nitrate and nitrite to suppress nitrogen which spoiled food. In fact, it is a technique still used by the foodservice industry.
Caking: Adding onto his previous discovery, when meat was stored in containers, the sodium chloride, nitrate, and nitrite cocktail would absorb moisture from the air and leave a caked layer. He discovered that adding glycerin and tartrate, an alkali metal, prevented caking altogether.
Spices: At the time, using spices to preserve food was a popular method. Hall, however, discovered that certain spices, like cloves and ginger, carried bacteria, yeast, and mold spores. His first solution of adding ethylene oxide gas into a vacuum to destroy foodborne microbes proved to be toxic. However, he applied this method to products in the cosmetics, drugs, and healthcare fields where it improved hygiene standards greatly.
Antioxidants: Hall invented a number of ways antioxidants could aid in food preservation. For example, he was the first to use lecithin, propyl gallate, and ascorbyl palmitate as antioxidants. His antioxidant inventions were particularly useful in the baked goods industry for food that contained fats and oils.
Meat curing products, seasonings, emulsions, antioxidants, protein hydrolysates, and other substances that keep our food fresh and flavorful are just a few examples of Lloyd Hall’s achievements in food chemistry. His work has allowed the foodservice industry to develop more efficient processes, increasing profitability.
Born: 1849, South Carolina
Inventions: Bread maker and bread crumbing machine
Joseph Lee made much-kneaded changes by taking the food and hospitality industry by storm and innovating when the odds were stacked against him. Born enslaved in 1849, 16 years before the end of the Civil War, Joseph Lee didn’t receive a formal education and faced routine discrimination at every turn. Yet, he earned the radically successful titles of master chef, restauranteur, hotel manager, inventor, and millionaire. Today, we will focus on his patents.
His first invention was a “kneading machine”. As an enslaved person, he had spent time working in a bakery and made some keen observations that he knew he could improve upon. His bread making machine offered the industry perfectly uniform, automated loaves and superior quality dough. It was a significantly cheaper cost to the client because it could perform the tasks of five or six people while providing higher standards of hygiene.
His second invention was the “bread crumbing machine”. Lee saw opportunity in all of the discarded bread that hotels and restaurants wasted on a daily basis. With this in mind, the machine he developed took those leftovers and crumbled them into perfectly sized breadcrumbs. Had human hands performed the same task, it would require 75% more manpower to yield similar results. In 1901, he was even able to sell the rights to his patent for 3 million USD (equivalent to 92 million USD today.)
Striving to Overcome Institutionalized Racism
Our nation is still far from inclusive in the science and innovation fields. Despite his tremendous success in the face of overwhelming discrimination, Joseph Lee wasn’t inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame until 2019.
All four men, however, are inspirations and role models for other African American businesspeople, inventors, chefs, bakers, scientists, and leaders in the hospitality industry. They weren’t exceptions to the rule but examples of brilliant minds that saw their ideas come to fruition once given the chance.