“Be it known that I, MIRIAM E.
BENJAMIN, a citizen of the United States
of America, residing at Washington, in the
District of Columbia, have invented certain
new and useful Improvements in Gong
and Signal Chairs for Hotels, Restaurants,
Steamboats, Railroad-trains, &c.”
Being a lady inventor is difficult, sure. But being a lady inventor of color in nineteenth-century America compounded that difficulty by a factor of a very large number. Fortunately for history, Miriam Benjamin was the kind of resourceful, intelligent lady who liked a challenge.
Miriam Elizabeth Benjamin had inspiring female role models right from the start. The oldest of five siblings, Miriam was born in 1861 (though she liked to say 1868, which I respect) to a Jewish dad and a Black mom. By all accounts, her mother rocked. Miriam’s younger brother Edgar called her “the best mother that ever lived,” a woman who raised her children “single-handed and alone to fight climate and privation so that her children might ‘get a good schooling.’ ” Her maternal determination paid off: young Miriam attended elementary school in South Carolina (hardly a friendly environment for free Black women in the post–Civil War era) and then high school in Boston. By 1888, at the age of twenty-seven, she had landed teaching positions at segregated schools in Washington, D.C.
Like her mother before her, Miriam cared about education, and she was a darn good teacher to boot. For the better part of the next decade, she was continuously employed in different capacities, like “physical culture,” in overcrowded schoolhouses whose conditions were unsanitary for children. But before she started bringing up the next generation of Black excellence, Miriam was coming up with ways to improve the world—a world that often told her she had no place in it, that she didn’t belong, that she wasn’t wanted simply because of her skin color and her desire to do more than just clean house or cook.
Miriam knew that the right technology could make the working woman’s life much easier, and so on July 17, 1888, she filed a patent for a device she hoped would do just that. Her “Gong and Signal Chair” (which is not a medieval torture device or marching band instrument, even though it kind of sounds like one) was essentially a chair with a button on it that, when pressed, illuminates a light on the back of the chair. It was a huge thing at the time—the chair could be “used in dining-rooms, in hotels, restaurants, steamboats, railroad-trains, [and] theaters” to reduce business expenses “by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests, &c., and to obviate the necessity of hand-clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services” of waitstaff. (The chair was so wicked awesome it may have even been adopted by none other than the U.S. House of Representatives so that members of Congress could use it to signal their pages from the floor.) Basically, it did what all great inventions do: saved people time and effort.
Even greater than that, Miriam’s invention likely helped make her the second Black woman in America ever to get her own patent. I say likely the second (the first probably being Sarah Goode, with her 1885 folding cabinet bed) because the records aren’t totally clear. Inventors didn’t have to disclose race on patent applications, and it was only sometimes noted in legal documents attached to the invention or attendant court cases. Adding to the confusion is that women of color would either pass as white or submit their inventions under the name of a white man to make sure they won approval (and not be rejected for the reason of “People in Power Being Bigots”). In any case, Miriam had accomplished something very few ladies of color had done in the United States at that time, and everyone was taking note. The Iowa State Bystander (a Black-run paper) reported that Miriam’s invention “is being commented upon by many Caucasian journals. The publishers seem to think it a phenomenon that a colored woman obtains so popular a patent. This is another proof on the list that some Negro is sure to do everything that anyone else has ever done. Their aspirations are as high as any other race.”
With success tucked into the pocket of her sensible-yet-stylish dress (she did not mess around), Miriam took the opportunity to explore other career options available to her; she casually tried out medical school and possibly even law school at Howard University before looking for employment. Having passed the civil service examination with “very credible” high percentages in July 1884, Miriam got a job as a government clerk, where she did everything from folding in the printing office, to assisting in the Census Office, to helping people solicit patents to achieve the same success she’d had at such a young age. She’s even listed as the attorney on her brother Lyle’s 1893 patent for a device “to keep the broom moist while sweeping without being so wet as to drip, and to prevent the dust from rising.” (Did he just invent the Swiffer? Sounds like it.)
Amazingly, Miriam wasn’t about just helping people through her inventions and her teaching and her government work and, you know, her general incredibleness. She was also about helping those in need when it mattered, no matter how long it took. In May 1906 the Boston Globereported that “through the untiring efforts of Miss Miriam E. Benjamin of Boston, a clerk in one of the departments at Washington, $10,482[.80] has been awarded to Samuel Lee, a negro who was elected to congress twenty-five years ago, but never sworn in.” That’s right—in 1880 a Black man named Samuel Lee had run for Congress against a white incumbent, J. R. Richardson, in South Carolina, won by 284 votes, and was promptly not sworn in and never paid. Miriam, in Washington, had heard the story by word of mouth and tracked down Samuel (who was by then quite ill). “The government should pay you,” she said, according to the Globe. “I don’t believe it will stand for Richardson receiving the salary, while you were legally elected and entitled to the same. I will try to get you the money.” With the help of her brother Edgar—now a highly successful lawyer in Boston—she took Samuel’s case all the way to the Appropriations Committee in Washington, where a bill was framed that would necessitate Samuel’s restitution, and after a years-long fight in the House, it finally passed in 1906. Despite harsh opposition from a representative from Illinois, the then-deceased Samuel’s estate was awarded over ten grand for two years’ back pay (that’s nearly three hundred thousand bucks, today), giving his kids what “their father should have received had he been seated as he should have been, as the vote showed.” And all thanks to the relentless brigade of our gal Miriam.
Miriam went on inventing even while helping others, coming up with nifty new gadgets such as a pinking device for dressmaking. Sadly, she was struck with frequent bouts of ill health, and in 1909 she suffered debilitating back injuries after the train she was riding hit a car (she sued, natch). Forever a family-minded gal, Miriam lived out the rest of her life unmarried in Boston, in the company of her sweet mom and her cool bro Edgar (who also did a little tinkering and invented something called a “Trouser Shield,” the use of which I’ll leave to your imagination), until her death in 1947. Today we can remember her every time we stand up for what’s right and every time we press that button over an airplane seat to flag down an attendant for an extra bag of delicious pretzels. Ding-dong, babes: gong and signals forever, and inventions and justice for all.