Black in the Day…You Got Mail

October 27, 1891:

On this date the process of sending out mail was changed forever.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island on March 22, 1857, Downing came from a prominent background. During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, Philip Bell Downing successfully filed at least five patents with the United States Patent Office.

Like so many Black 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!

More than twenty-five years later, on January 26, 1917, Downing would receive another patent (U.S. Patent number 1243,595), for an envelope moistener, which utilized a roller and a small, attached water tank, to quickly moisten envelopes. The following year saw another successful application (U.S. Patent number 126,9584) for an easily accessible desktop notepad.

Philip Downing died in Boston on June 8, 1934. He was 77.

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