Inventors + inventions from North Carolina

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Beulah Louise Henry’s sewing machine patent | Image via Patent Images

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Did you know that Vicks VapoRub + the Gatling gun were invented right here in North Carolina? From tobacco pipes to parasols, we’ve compiled a list of some of the state’s most interesting inventors and their inventions.

George Joseph Laurer | Universal bar code

George Joseph Laurer — born in Raleigh in 1925 — helped create the Universal Product Code system during his time at IBM at Research Triangle Park. George joined IBM in 1951 + became a Senior Engineer in 1969. He held 25 patents in his lifetime. Another Raleigh resident — Joseph Woodland — is credited with doing some of the earliest work on the project, as well as patenting the barcode.

Mary Kenner + Mildred Smith | Board game

Mary Kenner — born in Monroe, NC in 1912 — has the most patents of any Black woman in the US, with inventions ranging from a toilet paper holder to a board game she invented with her sister, Mildred Smith. Mary also invented a sanitary belt in the 1950’s — which was going to be patented + sold by the Sonn-Nap-Pack Company, until they found out she was Black and pulled out of the deal. She didn’t receive a patent for 30 more years, but she continued to invent things for the rest of her life.

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Packaging for a sanitary belt | Image via @semainehealth

Abigail Carter | Overalls

In 1859, Abigail Carter — from Clinton, NC — invented a pair of overalls for her husband, a railroad engineer. His unique + sturdy outfit was a hit with his coworkers + they started asking Abigail if they could have a pair of their own. The overalls were such a hit that she opened a business for them, becoming the first overalls manufacturer in the US.

Malcom McLean | Containerized shipping

Malcom McLean — born in Maxton, NC in 1913 — started a trucking company to help his family during the Great Depression. One day, Malcom watched dock workers move goods by hand and thought it would be more efficient if a trailer could be lifted + placed directly on the ship. He bought 2 oil tankers and got a bank loan to buy facilities for his venture and invented the modern intermodal shipping container. Longshoremen went on strike, but shipping costs dropped $5.86 a ton to 16 cents.

Beulah Louise Henry | Vacuum-sealed ice cream freezer

Beulah Henry — born in Raleigh in 1887 — is credited with 100+ inventions and ~50 US patents during her lifetime, earning her the nickname Lady Edison. She received her first patent for a vacuum-sealed ice cream freezer when she was 25 years old. Some of her other inventions include making improvements to common household items like sewing machines, umbrellas, dolls, and more.

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Beulah Louise Henry’s Parasol Patent | Image via US Patent and Trademark Office

Lunsford Lane | Tobacco pipe

Lunsford Lane — born into slavery outside of Raleigh in 1803 — was NC’s first Black inventor. While he was enslaved, Lunsford was allowed to earn money, as long as he finished his farm work. He invented a pipe + created a special blend of tobacco, but because he was enslaved, the pipe could not be patented. He saved $1,000, bought his family’s freedom, and moved them to New York, where some Black inventors were able to secure patents later.


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