February is Black History Month—a time when our nation celebrates the incredible achievements, contributions and stories of African Americans. The amusement industry has been shaped by many black inventors and entrepreneurs. Let’s take a look at some of the unexpected ways amusement parks have benefitted thanks to two prominent black American inventors.
Dr. James E. West
(Born Feb. 10, 1931)
When most people think of Great America, their minds likely jump to towering rides, flashy live shows or even classic carnival games. There’s an unseen common thread among nearly all aspects of an amusement park, though, that James E. West has improved in very real ways.
At the top of the list of his inventions, Dr. West invented the foil electret microphone in 1962. That’s fancy lingo for a mic that doesn’t require a power supply because it uses a permanently charged material. They are safer, less expensive and allow for faster production than the alternative.
Dr. West holds over 250 foreign and U.S. patents for the production and design of microphones and audio capture techniques that quickly became industry standard. His work is seen in 90% of all contemporary microphones (such as telephones, audio and music recording devices, baby monitors, and—yes—roller coaster station spiel mics, PEANUTS Block Party mics, high striker hammer game mics, and more.)
Granville T. Woods
(Born April 23, 1856, Died Jan. 30, 1910)
Referred to by some as “black Thomas Edison,” American inventor Granville Woods obtained more than 50 patents for inventions including an automatic brake, an egg incubator, and for improvements to other technologies like the safety circuit, telegraph, telephone and phonograph. Woods’s work laid the foundation for important safety features found in modern-day roller coasters.
In the late 1800s, Woods patented the multiplex telegraph, also known as the “induction telegraph.” This device allowed voice communication over telegraph wires, which helped speed up communications in the fast-paced world of rail transportation. Trains could send messages from the tracks to railway stations and enabled dispatchers to pinpoint a moving train’s location. It ultimately helped prevent errors and accidents.
Woods also patented what is known today as the “third rail,” which allows electricity to power trains without the use of batteries or exposed wires. He originally built the concept for trains but later modified it to power a ride at an amusement park!
Amusement parks have certainly been shaped by the achievements, inventions and lives of black Americans, and we celebrate their contributions this Black History Month!