September 15, 2013

OURstory: Jan Matzeliger (1852-1887)

I agree with President Obama ... Kanye West is a 'jackass'. However, he seems to be a cultural icon for African American youth. Perhaps it is time for us to get busy providing some alternative icons for our youth. We have large numbers of Black and Brown students with little or not preparation in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) subjects. Without STEM background in the future, these students may find themselves with no employment opportunities.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger realized as much. Did you know that Jan Matzeliger was born on this date in 1852. He used STEM knowledge to create a shoe-lasting machine that mechanically shaped the upper portions of shoes.

Matzeliger was born on September 15, 1852 in Suriname (South America), the child of a biracial marriage. His father was a white engineer from Holland and his mother was a Black woman in the Dutch colony. By his third birthday Matzeliger was sent to live with his father’s sister. By the time he turned 10 years old, Matzeliger became a worker in the machine shop that his father owned. It was at this time that he quickly became aware of his talent for working with machinery.

Although he was skilled in this area, Matzeliger did not initially pursue a career in engineering or inventing. In 1871 at the age of 19 he left Surinam and worked as a sailor for two years. By 1873 he settled in Philadelphia where he worked in a variety of trades.

In 1876 he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts. Matzeliger arrived in Lynn barely able to speak English. Nonetheless he began working in a shoe factory. Despite his language difficulties, Matzeliger began working on various innovations that would improve shoe manufacturing productivity. Working alone and at night for six months, he produced a model in wood and on March 20, 1883, received a patent. The patent number is 459,899.

His patent was subsequently bought by Sydney W. Winslow, who established the United Shoe Machine Company. The continued success of this business brought about a 50% reduction in the price of shoes across the nation, doubled wages, and improved working conditions for millions of people dependent on the shoe industry for their livelihood. Winslow’s corporation made $50 million in the next dozen years and put Lynn, MA on the map as the shoe capital of the world.

Matzeliger’s work habits and his neglect of his health, however, soon took a toll. In the summer of 1887, he caught a cold then developed tuberculosis. Jan Matzeliger died on August 24 of that year in his mid-30s, long before he had the chance to realize a share of the enormous profit derived from his invention.

Matzeliger is not a household name but it should be. He was honored on a 29 cent first class U.S. postage stamp in 1991.

I hope that he included in the American history lessons of our public schools around the nation! Jan Matzeliger should be discussed with our young people ... not Kanye West.

1 comment:

Reggie said...

I agree, Kanye West is a complete jackass.