Claude Harvard faced many racial obstacles over the course of his young life, but when he addressed a crowd of students at Tuskegee University in 1935, he spoke with confidence and optimism:
“Speaking from my own experience, brief as it is, I feel certain that the man or woman who has put his very best into honest effort to gain an education will not find the doors to success barred.”
One of the few, if not the only, Black engineers employed by Henry Ford at the time, Claude had been personally sent to Tuskegee by Ford to showcase an invention of his own creation. Even in the face of societal discrimination, the message of empowerment and perseverance that Claude imparted on that day was one that he carried with him over the course of his own career. For him, there was always a path forward.
Claude Harvard practicing radio communication with other students at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272856
Born in 1911, Claude spent the first ten years of his life in Dublin, Georgia, until his family, like other Black families of the time period, made the decision to move north to Detroit in order to escape the poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South. From a young age, Claude was intrigued by science and developed a keen interest in a radical new technology—wireless radio. To further this interest, he sold products door-to-door just so he could acquire his own crystal radio set to play around with. It would be Claude’s passion for radio that led him to grander opportunities.
At school in Detroit, Harvard demonstrated an aptitude for the STEM fields and was eventually referred to the Henry Ford Trade School, a place usually reserved for orphaned teen-aged boys to be trained in a variety of skilled, industrial trade work. His enrollment at Henry Ford Trade School depended on his ability to resist the racial taunting of classmates and stay out of fights. Once there, his hands-on classes consisted of machining, metallurgy, drafting, and engine design, among others. In addition to the manual training received, academic classes were also required, and students could participate in clubs.
Claude Harvard with other Radio Club members and their teacher at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272854
As president of the Radio Club, Claude Harvard became acquainted with Henry Ford, who shared an interest in radio—as early as 1919, radio was playing a pivotal role in Ford Motor Company’s communications. Although he graduated at the top of his class in 1932, Claude was not given a journeyman’s card like the rest of his classmates. A journeyman’s card would have allowed Claude to be actively employed as a tradesperson. Despite this obstacle, Henry Ford recognized Claude’s talent and he was hired at the trade school. By the 1920s, Ford Motor Company had become the largest employer of African American workers in the country. Although Ford employed large numbers of African Americans, there were limits to how far most could advance. Many African American workers spent their time in lower paying, dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs.
The year 1932 also saw Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company once again revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of a low-priced V-8 engine. By casting the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, Ford cut manufacturing costs and could offer its V-8 in a car starting under $500, a steal at the time. The affordability of the V-8 meant many customers for Ford, and with that came inevitable complaints—like a noisy rattling that emanated from the engine. To remedy this problem, which was caused by irregular-shaped piston pins, Henry Ford turned to Claude Harvard.
To solve the issue, Harvard invented a machine that checked the shape of piston pins and sorted them by size with the use of radio waves. More specifically, the machine checked the depth of the cut on each pin, its length, and its surface smoothness. It then sorted the V-8 pins by size at a rate of three per second. Ford implemented the machine on the factory floor and touted it as an example of the company’s commitment to scientific accuracy and uniform quality. Along with featuring Claude’s invention in print and audio-visual ads, Ford also sent Harvard to the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago and to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to showcase the machine.
Piston Pin Inspection Machine at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. / THF212795
During his time at Tuskegee, Harvard befriended famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who he eventually introduced to Henry Ford. In 1937, when George Washington Carver visited Henry Ford in Dearborn, he insisted that Claude be there. While Carver and Ford would remain friends the rest of their lives, Claude Harvard left Ford Motor Company in 1938 over a disagreement about divorcing his wife and his pay. Despite Ford patenting over 20 of Harvard’s ideas, Claude’s career would be forced in a new direction and over time, the invention of the piston pin sorting machine would simply be attributed to the Henry Ford Trade School.
Despite these many obstacles, Claude’s work lived on in the students that he taught later in his life, the contributions he made to manufacturing, and a 1990 oral history, where he stood by his sentiments that if one put in a honest effort into learning, there would always be a way forward.
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
In 1975, two Alpex Computer Corporation employees named Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel approached Fairchild Semiconductor to sell an idea—a prototype for a video game console code-named Project “RAVEN.” Fairchild saw promise in RAVEN’s groundbreaking concept for interchangeable software, but the system was too delicate for everyday consumers.
Jerry Lawson, head of engineering and hardware at Fairchild, was assigned to bring the system up to market standards. Just one year prior, Lawson had irked Fairchild after learning that he had built a coin-op arcade version of the Demolition Derby game in his garage. His managers worried about conflict of interest and potential competition. Rather than reprimand him, they asked Lawson to research applying Fairchild technology to the budding home video game market. The timing of Kirschner and Haskel’s arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
A portrait of George Washington Carver in the Greenfield Village Soybean Laboratory. Carver’s inquisitiveness and scientific interests served as childhood inspiration for Lawson. / THF214109
Jerry Lawson was born in 1940 and grew up in a Queens, New York, federal housing project. In an interview with Vintage Computing magazine, he described how his first-grade teacher put a photo of George Washington Carver next to his desk, telling Lawson “This could be you!” He was interested in electronics from a young age, earning his ham radio operator’s license, repairing neighborhood televisions, and building walkie talkies to sell.
When Lawson took classes at Queens and City College in New York, it became apparent that his self-taught knowledge was much more advanced than what he was being taught. He entered the field without completing a degree, working for several electronics companies before moving to Fairchild in 1970. In the mid-1970s, Lawson joined the Homebrew Computer Club, which allowed him to establish important Silicon Valley contacts. He was the only Black man present at those meetings and was one of the first Black engineers to work in Silicon Valley and in the video game industry.
Refining an Idea
Packaging for the Fairchild Channel F Video Entertainment System. / THF185320
With Kirschner and Haskel’s input, the team at Fairchild—which grew to include Lawson, Ron Smith, and Nick Talesfore—transformed RAVEN’s basic premise into what was eventually released as the Fairchild “Channel F” Video Entertainment System. For his contributions, Lawson has earned credit for the co-invention of the programmable and interchangeable video game cartridge, which continues to be adapted into modern gaming systems. Industrial designer Nick Talesfore designed the look of cartridges, taking inspiration from 8-track tapes. A spring-loaded door kept the software safe.
Until the invention of the video game cartridge, home video games were built directly onto the ROM storage and soldered permanently onto the main circuit board. This meant, for example, if you purchased one of the first versions of Pong for the home, Pong was the only game playable on that system. In 1974, the Magnavox Odyssey used jumper cards that rewired the machine’s function and asked players to tape acetate overlays onto their television screen to change the game field. These were creative workarounds, but they weren’t as user-friendly as the Channel F’s “switchable software” cart system.
Jerry Lawson also sketched the unique stick controller, which was then rendered for production by Talesfore, along with the main console, which was inspired by faux woodgrain alarm clocks. The bold graphics on the labels and boxes were illustrated by Tom Kamifuji, who created rainbow-infused graphics for a 7Up campaign in the early 1970s. Kamifuji’s graphic design, interestingly, is also credited with inspiring the rainbow version of the Apple Computers logo.
The Fairchild Video Entertainment System with unique stick controllers designed by Lawson. / THF185322
The Video Game Industry vs. Itself
The Channel F was released in 1976, but one short year later, it was in an unfortunate position. The home video game market was becoming saturated, and Fairchild found itself in competition with one of the most successful video game systems of all time—the Atari 2600. Compared to the types of action-packed games that might be found in a coin-operated arcade or the Atari 2600, many found the Channel F’s gaming content to be tame, with titles like Math Quiz and Magic Numbers. To be fair, the Channel F also included Space War, Torpedo Alley, and Drag Race, but Atari’s graphics quality outpaced Fairchild’s. Approximately 300,000 units of Channel Fun were sold by 1977, compared to several million units of the Atari 2600.
Around 1980, Lawson left Fairchild to form Videosoft (ironically, a company dedicated to producing games and software for Atari) but only one cartridge found official release: a technical tool for television repair called “Color Bar Generator.” Realizing they would never be able to compete with Atari, Fairchild stopped producing the Channel F in 1983, just in time for the “Great Video Game Crash.” While the Channel F may not be as well-known as many other gaming systems of the 1970s and 80s, what is undeniable is that Fairchild was at the forefront of a new technology—and that Jerry Lawson’s contributions are still with us today.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
You may have heard the saying, “The Real McCoy.” Popular belief often links the phrase to the high quality of a device patented by Black engineer Elijah McCoy.
Elijah McCoy was born on a farm in Canada to formerly enslaved parents. His father, George McCoy, had rolled cigars to earn the $1,000 required to buy his freedom. But money could not buy freedom for George’s love, Mildred “Millie” Goins, so George and Millie escaped her Kentucky master and became fugitives, settling in Colchester, Canada. They became farmers and had twelve children, including Elijah, born around 1844.
Elijah McCoy’s interest in machines led him to pursue formal study and an apprenticeship in engineering in Scotland. When he returned, he joined his family in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
But employers, blinded by racism, could not see his talent. Instead, in 1865, the Michigan Central Railroad offered McCoy the dangerous job of oilman and fireman. The need to constantly oil the moving parts of a locomotive AND shovel coal into the engine’s firebox soon sent him to the drawing board. In 1872, McCoy patented his own “improvement in lubricators for steam-engines,” the first of at least 52 patents and design registrations he secured during his lifetime.
For the next 40 years, McCoy patented many improvements for his automated oil-drip mechanism, updating his device as steam-engine design and operation changed. The steam engine lubricator cup pictured above (and on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation) resulted from improvements patented in 1882. Today, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office branch in Detroit bears his name, a fitting tribute to an innovator who moved locomotives—if not mountains.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
William Clay Ford, who passed away on March 9, 2014, is remembered for his generous philanthropy, his dedication to the city of Detroit, and his long-time ownership of the Detroit Lions. They are important legacies that will continue to benefit and inspire for years to come. Automotive industry leaders, historians and enthusiasts point to another of Mr. Ford’s lasting contributions: the 1956 Continental Mark II.
While his brothers Henry II and Benson – especially Henry II – made their marks in Ford Motor Company’s business offices, William Clay Ford inherited his father Edsel Ford’s passion for automotive styling, as well as his consummate good taste. Fittingly, the younger Ford’s most important automobile project was a revival of Edsel’s much-admired Lincoln Continental of 1939 to 1948. The revival car, built and sold under a separate Continental Division, not only measured up to the original Continental’s legend, but became a classic in its own right.
At just thirty years of age, William Clay Ford headed a team of stylists and engineers who worked around the clock to design a car of rare style and luxury. The resulting Continental Mark II, with its clean lines and understated trim, stood in stark contrast with the chrome confections typical of the 1950s. Build quality was of the highest order. Suppliers’ parts were checked and re-checked, and factory components were tested and re-tested. Each car was essentially hand-built, and workers were encouraged to report even the slightest defect so that problems could be corrected before a car ever left the factory.
Power came from a 368-cubic inch Lincoln V-8 capable of 300 horsepower. The car was appointed with every available convenience. Automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes and power windows were all standard equipment. Air conditioning was the only optional extra. Quality and luxury, of course, came at a cost. The Continental Mark II debuted with a price tag of $10,000 – more than twice the cost of a conventional Lincoln. The car quickly became a status symbol among business and entertainment elites. Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor were proud owners, as was Elvis Presley – despite his penchant for Cadillacs.
Ford Motor Company never intended the Mark II to be a mainstream success. Instead, it was a “halo car” that sprinkled a touch of status over the automaker’s entire line. Even with that imposing price tag, Ford undoubtedly lost money on each Mark II it sold. But the company was willing to take the loss in return for the prestige and publicity the car generated. That mindset changed swiftly when Ford became a publicly-traded company in 1956. The limited-market Continental Mark II was no longer sustainable, and production ceased after just 3,000 cars over two model years.
Today the Continental Mark II is regarded as one of the most elegant American automobiles ever built. Some 1,500 examples survive, and bidding is intense whenever one comes up for auction. Mark II owners and fans keep the car’s spirit alive through clubs and car shows, and car magazines regularly include it in their “best ever” lists. It’s an enduring testament to William Clay Ford’s contributions to the automobile industry.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Back in May, we received a visit to our reading room by a team of engineering students from Penn State, who were touring Greenfield Village. They had been out in the Village helping to install a working replica (but more on that later) of Henry Ford's first experimental engine, the Kitchen Sink Engine. (The original engine, made in 1893, is in our collections storage.) Now they wanted to see what is near and dear to any engineer's heart: the blueprints. We located and pulled the engine's technical drawings, which had been created by Ford Motor Company staff circa 1944 and form part of our Ford Blueprint Drawings collection (just one small part of which is the "Miscellaneous Ford Motor Company Blueprints and Drawings Collection," where these drawings reside.
The engineering students were a rapt audience, and they stayed in the reading room for a while, poring over the drawings, talking to each other about them, and taking pictures. Later, an order was put in for high-resolution scans of the drawings. It turns out that a previous group of students from their course had already created their own replica of the engine, back in 2012 as part of a class project. The Henry Ford has had a replica of the Kitchen Sink Engine on display, but ours is not a working replica. Theirs is -- and that's the really cool thing. We are always pleased when our collections are used in exciting ways that bring the past forward. Icing on the cake for this particular case (maybe the Fates were smiling on us for the 150th anniversary of Henry Ford's birth?), was that with one of the Kitchen Sink Engine drawings, we hit a milestone number for our image scanning: THF100000! (All of the collections images we scan are assigned a unique identification number, in order to make tracking and retrieval possible.) A nice round—and large—number to commemorate an important first in Henry Ford's career! Now we're going to be wondering what THF200000 will be.
See the Penn State Beaver students' working replica of the Kitchen Sink Engine on display at this weekend's Old Car Festival.