The Life and Inventions of Miriam Benjamin

Black Woman Inventor Patents Signal Chair

Miriam Benjamin was a Washington D.C. school teacher and the second black woman to receive a patent. Miriam Benjamin received a patent in 1888 for an invention she called a Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels. This device might seem to be a bit quaint, but it is likely that you have used its successor, the flight attendant call button on commercial aircraft.

Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels

Benjamin's invention allowed hotel customer to summon a waiter from the comfort of their chair. A button on the chair would buzz the waiters' station and a light on the chair would let the wait staff know who wanted service. Miriam Benjamin's invention was adapted and used in the United States House of Representatives.

Her patent notes that this invention would be a convenience to guests, who wouldn't have to flag down a waiter by waving at them, clapping, or calling out to them. Anyone who has tried to get the attention of a waiter, especially when they have all seemingly disappeared into the woodwork, might wish this had become a standard in every restaurant. Benjamin also noted that it might reduce the needs for staffing, which would save expenses for the hotel or restaurant.

Below you can view the actual patent issued to Miriam Benjamin on July 17, 1888. 

Life of Miriam E. Benjamin

Benjamin was born as a free person in Charleston, South Carolina in 1861. Her father was Jewish, and her mother was black. Her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where her mother, Eliza, hoped to give her children access to good schooling. Miriam attended high school there. She moved to Washington, D.C. and was working as a schoolteacher when she received her patent for the Gong and Signal Chair in 1888. She continued her education at Howard University, first attempting medical school. These plans were interrupted when she passed the civil service exam and got a federal job as a clerk.

She later graduated from Howard University law school and became a solicitor of patents. In 1920, she moved back to Boston to live with her mother and work for her brother, noted attorney Edgar Pinkerton Benjamin. She never married.

The Inventive Benjamin Family

The Benjamin family made use of the education their mother Eliza valued so highly. Lude Wilson Benjamin, four years younger than Miriam, received U.S. Patent number 497,747 in 1893 for an improvement on broom moisteners. He proposed a tin reservoir that would attach to a broom and drip water onto the broom to keep it moist so it wouldn't produce dust as it swept. Miriam E. Benjamin was the original assignee for the patent.

Youngest in the family, Edgar P. Benjamin was an attorney and philanthropist who was active in politics. But he also joined in getting U.S. Patent number 475,749 in 1892 on a "trousers protector" that was a bicycle clip to keep trousers out of the way while bicycling.