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Celebrating the Plumbing Industry’s African-American Innovators

February is Black History Month, and we want to recognize some of the African-Americans who have made amazing contributions to the plumbing industry!

Read on to learn more about these inspiring pioneers.

Lewis Howard Latimer

The child of former slaves, inventor Lewis Howard Latimer was a draftsman and served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. He is best known for working with Alexander Graham Bell in drafting the first patent drawings of the telephone. But he held many patents, the first of which was an improved toilet system for train cars.

Other inventions included an evaporative air conditioner and an improved process for manufacturing carbon filaments for light bulbs.

READ MORE: The Man Behind Edison: Lewis Howard Latimer

J.B. Rhodes

Ever wonder about the origins of the toilet?

Sir John Harrington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, is credited with installing the first flushing toilet in England, therefore inspiring the slang term “the john.” And while he is technically the inventor of the toilet, there were many other innovators who contributed to making the toilet what it is today – a staple of our homes!

Jerome Bonaparte “J.B.” Rhodes of Kalamazoo, Michigan received a patent in 1899 for an attachment for a water closet, also known as a toilet. The attachment was a tube to be used as a sprayer, similar to the bidets we see today.

Rhodes is believed to have held more than 200 patents for items including oil bottles, razor blades, and fishing lures, according to a report from Western Michigan University’s WMUK.

Dr. Robert Ellerston Shurney

Astronauts have to go to the bathroom, too!

But before NASA launched Skylab, the first U.S. space station, in the 1970s, astronauts had no choice but to do their business in pouches that were attached to their bodies.

Skylab changed all of that – and we have Dr. Robert Ellerston Shurney, a longtime NASA aerospace engineer, to thank!

Dr. Shurney is credited for creating a waste control system in Skylab. With a fan and a vacuum suction, this invention allowed the astronauts to safely and hygienically use the bathroom in a zero-gravity environment.

Adrienne Bennett

We often think of plumbing as a man’s job. Adrienne Bennett has proven that stereotype to be false.

The Detroit woman was the first black master female plumber in the United States. She is now CEO of a commercial plumbing and water conservation company, which she launched in Detroit in 2008.

She told CNN in a 2018 interview that she was approached by a recruiter from the Mechanical Contractors Association of Detroit, who was looking to recruit minority women for an apprenticeship program with a local plumbers union. Bennett began training at age 22 and dealt with plenty of bullying and harassment along the way, she said in the interview.

But she became the first woman in Michigan to complete the program and by 1987 became a master plumber.

“I’m honest, hardworking and I don’t let anyone get in my way and cheat me out of my dream,” she told CNN.