African Role Models Do Not Need to Be Changed to Inventors


Let me first thank Prof. Joseph Diescho for his excellent public lecture held in Rundu on Friday, 27th October, on the future of the Kavango region. However, I want to correct some statements which might have confused the audience. I also want to kick the discussion why most Africans are only successful outside Africa. The wrong statement I have to correct is that we need to separate facts from wishes, even if history is sometimes painful. We owe it to our children to report the history correctly; we don’t want to write the same biased history that the Western World did, and simplifying history does not give black Africans more credentials. The topic I want to raise is about inventions and to whom to give the credit. I want to find a compromise between the followers of LÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚©opold SÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚©dar Senghor who was a Senegalese poet, author and politician who served as the firsr president of Senegal (1960 – 1980). Senghor also happened to be the first African to sit as a member of l’ Academie francaise but stated that the black man never invented anything innovative and has to build on the Western knowledge and inventions] and the new Afro-American wave of re-inventing a new past which did not exist. You will see that both of them are wrong and do not do us a favour. The Afro-American wave understandably tried to create new role models for black kids in an environment where teenagers only look up to gangster rappers as their role models. Violence, drugs and money have become their models (just as a lot of young Namibians see some gangster rappers as their model and try to dress and behave like them). Coming out of a generation of traumatized slaves, they felt they had to dignify their history (after all, it was suppressed). However, by doing so, they left this to people with a good educational and journalistic background but with little scientific background in physical science. Inventions done sometimes well in the past by fellow Americans or other cultures were now credited to only Afro-Americans and previous runaway slaves. So here are some of the statements which also came out of the public lecture on Friday. They were not exposed in detail like I do it in this article, but were inserted into the discussion to motivate the audience, but I think it would have been better to leave it out. Here the first statement: A black man invented the electric bulb. … The man, Dr Diescho, credited the invention to his name; it was apparently the Afro-American, Lewis Latimer, who got this title recently after the bulb was already invented. Apparently Lewis Latimer, a mulatto, did his invention between 1881 and 1882. However, there are only three people seriously associated with the invention of the light bulb/incandescent lamp, GÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚¶bel, Edison and Swan. English chemist/physicist, Joseph Swan, experimented with a carbon-filament incandescent light way back in 1860, and by 1878 had developed a better design which he patented in Britain. On the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Edison developed a successful carbon-filament bulb, receiving a patent for it (#223898) in January 1880, before Lewis Latimer did any work in electric lighting. From 1880 onward, countless patents were issued for innovations in filament design and manufacture – Edison had over 50 of them. Neither of Latimer’s two filament-related patents in 1881 and 1882 was an important innovation. Latimer co-invented and patented a process for manufacturing the carbon filament that was used in a light bulb, but not the light bulb itself! It was also a team work as there was a co-inventor and patent-holder with Lewis Latimer; his co-inventor was Nichols. The light bulb which was used later, and which we still use today, has a tungsten filament which lasts much longer, and Latimer’s invention was not adopted outside Hiram Maxim’s company where Latimer worked at the time. (He was not hired by Edison’s company until 1884, primarily as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigations). Neither Latimer nor Edison invented the light bulb, although Edison patented it first; Swan was later recognized, and GÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚¶bel is now acknowledged for inventing the light bulb/incandescent lamp before all of them. So you see, history is not so simple, and we should see Latimer as a dedicated scientist working together with a bunch of other people and we should give him the credit he deserves, but in the right context. Latimer, by the way, was a trainee of Graham Bell, one of the co-inventors of the telephone, so he got some serious training and he definitely should be seen as a role model to Afro-Americans. But, by distorting the history, you take that model away and become less credible when claiming other inventions. The lights in the public lecture room were actually fluorescent energy saving ones, first developed in 1926 by a German national, Edmund Germer, and made commercially available in its current compact form by OSRAM and PHILIPS in the 1980s. So they have nothing to with Edison’s bulb in any way. Some members in the audience might actually have thought that the one who was part of the bulb story also invented electricity (which had to be developed by other people before even thinking about a bulb). So we can go very far here if your audience is not told to differentiate and has no previous knowledge of the history of scientific achievements. To give you another example: in order to have the internet, you need a PC. Right? … During the lecture the Nigerian, Philip Emeagwali, was cited as having invented the internet (this is also cited on some internet pages with a date added to it – 1989). Or The Internet and Transmission Control Protocols were initially developed in 1973 by American computer scientist, Vinton Cerf, as part of a project sponsored by the United States Department of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and directed by American engineer, Robert Kahn. The Internet began as a computer network of ARPA (ARPAnet) which linked computer networks at several universities and research laboratories in the United States. The WorldWide Web, as we know it today, was developed in 1989 by English computer scientist, Timothy Berners-Lee, for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Later, Microsoft and Bill Gates took it up to improve it and make it available to the general public. The rest, as they say, is history. However, it must be said to the benefit of Dr Diescho that not one individual invented the Internet alone. Apart from the above fathers, there were other parallel independent fathers, as well as mothers, uncles, and aunts (even Al Gore, the vice-president under Clinton, claims to be one of them). It was not even born at one place or time. Instead, it grew organically and incrementally, following trails which are non-intersecting. So what did Philip Emeagwali – who, by the way, also lives in the USA – do? He is certainly a very smart guy and he currently uses his mathematical and computer expertise to develop methods for extracting more petroleum from oilfields. It was his formula that used 65ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 separate computer processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second in 1989. That feat led to computer scientists comprehending the capabilities of super-computers and the practical applications of creating a system that allowed multiple computers to communicate. However, the fastest performance of a computer application in 1989 was 6 billion floating point operations per second (6 Gflops), achieved by a team from Mobil and Thinking Machines Corp. on a 64ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000-processor “Connection Machine” invented by Danny Hillis. That was almost double the 3.1 Gflops of Emeagwali’s computation. Computing’s Nobel Prize equivalent is the Turing Award, which Emeagwali has never won. So, while Emeagwali did a wonderful job and can be cited as part of the people contributing and participating with his fellow colleagues to work on highly sophisticated technology, he is not the inventor of our running internet web. Third statement: A black afro-American invented peanut butter (and apparently boosted US agriculture, which I found on a dubious web site). The man’s name is George Washington Carver who began his peanut research in 1903. He was in fact a wonderful extension officer and an example for the black Mississippi community. From his Missouri childhood on the farm of Moses Carver, his owner until emancipation, George Carver had a special affinity for plants. What he called his “inordinate desire for knowledge” extended to music and painting, as well as the sciences. There is even a movie about him which is excellent and I recommend it to the young generation in Namibia. Only peanut butter was not invented by him. Peanuts, which are native to the New World tropics, were mashed into paste by Aztecs hundreds of years ago. Evidence of modern peanut butter comes from US patent #306727 issued to Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal, Quebec in 1884, for a process of milling roasted peanuts between heated surfaces until the peanuts reached “a fluid or semi-fluid state.” In 1890, George A. Bayle Jr., owner of a food business in St. Louis, manufactured peanut butter and sold it out of barrels. J.H. Kellogg, of cereal fame, secured US patent #580787 in 1897 for his “Process of Preparing Nutmeal.” Most of Carver’s work to improve regional farming practices was part of the already established knowledge. His advice was not new: the Department of Agriculture had issued two far more comprehensive bulletins encouraging peanut cultivation and consumption, and Carver freely acknowledged his debt to numerous recipe books and other sources. But his publication doubtless made more rural blacks around Tuskegee aware of the values of the crop, but there was nothing in it to suggest his future prominence. So again, let’s acknowledge him for what he is, not what some people looking for their roots want him to become. Last statement: The refrigerator developed by Afro-Americans. I guess he meant the Afro-Americans, Thomas Elkins in 1879? and John Stanard in 1891? – the only names of Afro-Americans I could allocate to the claim. However, Oliver Evans proposed a mechanical refrigerator based on a vapor-compression cycle in 1805, and Jacob Perkins had a working machine built in 1834. Dr. John Gorrie created an air-cycle refrigeration system in about 1844, which he installed in a Florida hospital. In the 1850s Alexander Twining in the USA and James Harrison in Australia used mechanical refrigeration to produce ice on a commercial scale. Around the same time, the CarrÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚© brothers of France led the development of absorption refrigeration systems. Stanard’s patent describes not a refrigeration machine, but an old-fashioned icebox ÃÆ’Æ‘ÂÂÃÆ’ÂÀÃ…¬ÃÆ’ÂÃ’šÂ¬Ã‚ an insulated cabinet into which ice was placed to cool the interior. As such, it was a “refrigerator” only in the old sense of the term, which included non-mechanical coolers. Elkins created a similarly low-tech cooler, acknowledging in his patent #221222 that “I am aware that chilling substances enclosed within a porous box or jar by wetting its outer surface is an old and well-known process.” But having mentioned only these four examples out of a list of a dozen new claims (luckily not mentioned during the lecture, and I thank Dr Diescho for sparing us this one), what did you notice? Right. All of these valuable chaps are Americans or have worked in the USA and breathed American liberal ideas. There are numerous less famous cases I know personally, of Senegalese working with a French team in airplane-guiding devices and a man from Mali working at NASA in the States. Why do Africans only move to scientific heights in Paris, London or Washington? What is inhibiting sub-Saharan Black Africa from doing valuable marketable inventions? Is it the culture or traditions? Owls (kakuru) or bats (kafukufuku) and other animals are still strongly seen in the Kavango and Caprivi region as bringing bad luck and present the devil himself. Similar statements can be found during 1500-century Europe where superstition also ruled people’s lives, only this was 500 years ago! Nowadays in the West, they are cherished as a sign of a healthy environment helping to kill pests. When people’s lives are still guided by superstition and a lack of scientific curiosity to analyze nature’s wonders, science will not find a fertile ground. Other cultural values might inhibit science as well. A brilliant Malian author mentioned once to me that isolating himself with a book or being alone is difficult for him. People see him as anti-social, and cutting yourself off from your environment to read a book is still seen as strange in many African societies. The reading habits of most of our fellow brothers are limited to newspapers. On the other hand, the brilliant scientific African men and women born, raised or self-exiled to Europe or the States have all the freedom to concentrate on their work. They can save money for their studies and take care of their children’s education; budgeting has become possible as the extended family does not interfere with their dreams. So the beautiful African solidarity which has worked so well in the traditional African communities has become a burden in a society where 37% are unemployed and where the one member of a clan who is working is expected to support a whole group of people he has not budgeted for. How will he grow up, if everybody wants to pull him down? And then there is the jealousy issue, which was well discussed during the lecture and which does not need any introduction here. Lastly, most African governments spend more on S&T than on research itself, while tribalism and xenophobic attitudes bring the wrong people into decision-making positions. What I wanted to share with the audience and others who might read this article, is this: let’s get over the inferiority complex without creating a new story which will later be found to be untrue; the truth often lies in-between the extremes of the European-centred and newly-created (mostly Afro-American centred) stories. Let’s give role models to our generation which are credible. And yes, after all this talking, Dr Professor Joseph Diescho is still a role model for me (together with others like Dr Romanus Kampungu to whom the lecture was dedicated). And I know I might have disturbed some sensitive readers, but I encourage all to do your own research and come up with your own judgment. Not all what is Western or American is bad; these societies have created the base of our modern world; some of it originated way back with the Egyptians (a superb example of how a mixed-coloured culture can grow and thrive in harmony. Unfortunately, it was the Greeks and Romans as well as the Arabs who gained most out of it, while sub-Saharan black Africa stayed behind for numerous historical, geographical and cultural reasons. But now we can build on what others have created. So let’s honour the inventors, co-inventors and team members, attributing each merit to who deserves it and analyze what is hindering us from coming out of the Iron Age which you still find while travelling from the rural north up to rural Angola, Congo, Chad and many other African countries. Let’s shake off traditions which are blocking us and improve on the ones which can bring the continent forward; let’s talk more about 2006 and Vision 2030 than about 1904. Let’s copy from the Europeans where it’s useful and leave out what is damaging us – corruption, drinking, status and self-enrichment. Also, I know the Professor will forgive me for my article as it is contributing to a debate which is often biased by all and gets emotionally loaded. But all I have mentioned here is in good faith, and sometimes things get mixedup in speeches which, as a whole, I repeat remains valid and true. Warm thanks to all organizers. Patrick Hilger