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James Forten | African American Inventors and their Inventions

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James Forten

The saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” is thrown about wildly these days, but it is the antithesis of the life of James Forten. He was one of the busiest of all African American inventors, and lived a life that is too busy and erratic to fully discuss in this brief article. He was a noted political activist, a sail maker, a soldier, a dentist, and a reverend, and he excelled at everything that he did. While it would be easy to write reams about his political standpoint, or praise his virtue and honour, the best way to acknowledge his contribution as an inventor is to place sole focus on his contribution as a sail maker.

Forten was unfortunate enough to have to work from a young age, and while he was still very young he found himself serving on a ship during the Revolutionary War. This must have been quite a baptism of fire for a young boy of 15, but he kept his wits about him, and soon developed an improved way for handling the sails of a ship. In times before engines were regularly available, the ability to master the wind could mean the difference between success and failure. While Forten’s invention was clearly genius, it did not help him and his shipmates being captured by the enemy. However, he managed to escape the slave trade, which was the normal route for black prisoners of war, by relying on a strong friendship with the son of the vessel’s captain, and managed to escape the war in relative comfort as a standard prisoner.

The influence of the war on the rest of Forten’s life is clear. Once peace was restored, he opened a store that specialized in the manufacturing of ships’ sails, and he was so successful that he soon became one of the wealthiest men in the country. With his wealth, both in monetary and experiential terms, he was able to launch the social campaign that coloured the rest of his days. Regardless of which aspect of his life you take into consideration, James Forten is an icon and a genius, and an inspiration to those who are facing tough circumstances.

 

 

 
 
 
 

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