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Philip Downing

Despite the fact that the art of letter writing has been lost to modern society, we still all seem to make use of letter boxes, or post boxes, often outside of our homes. In America in particular, the image of a steel box standing on some kind of pillar or structure is synonymous with getting the paper, collecting bills, or if you have a wild streak, practical jokes. This icon of telecommunications culture has brought us everything from devastating war letters to love letters, and the inventor of the device as we know it was an African American man by the name of Philip Downing.

Like so many African American inventors, very little is known about Downing’s personal life.  He lived during the middle to late 1800’s, and he obviously had a practical mind, as two of his patents managed to become crucial inventions. His first patent came in 1890, when he designed a switch system to be used on the railroads as part of planning and guiding trains along the track. This contribution was an early prototype for the light switch as we know it today. One year later, his most famous design, the street letter box, was patented. It featured a steel box with a hinging door, which was supported by four legs. The idea was that by having a letter box in front of your home, you would not have to go down to the local post office to send and receive mail. This idea single-handedly revolutionized the way in which people communicated at the time, and also made life far easier for mail men!

It takes a brief second of inspiration to change the course of human history, and thanks to the work of minds like Philip Downing’s, our lives can run the course of convenience that they do today.