Biography of Miriam Benjamin, Inventor of a Signal Chair

An airplane call button
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Miriam Benjamin (September 16, 1861–1947) was a Washington, D.C. school teacher and the second black woman to receive a patent in the United States, given to her in 1888 for an invention she called a Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels. This device might seem to be a bit quaint, but its successor is still used daily—the flight attendant call button on commercial aircraft.

Fast Facts: Miriam Benjamin

  • Known For: Second black woman to receive a patent, she invented the Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels
  • Born: September 16, 1861 in Charleston, South Carolina 
  • Parents: Francis Benjamin and Eliza Benjamin
  • Died: 1947
  • Education: Howard University, Howard University Law School
  • Awards: Patent number 386,289
  • Notable Quote: From her patent application: The chair would serve "to reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages."

Early Life

Benjamin was born as a free person in Charleston, South Carolina, on September 16, 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.

Education and Career

Miriam attended high school in Boston. She later 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.

Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels

Benjamin's invention allowed hotel customers 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.

Her patent notes that this invention would serve "to reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages." 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. Patent number 386,289 was issued to Miriam Benjamin on July 17, 1888.

Her invention received attention from the press. Miriam Benjamin lobbied to have her Gong and Signal Chair adopted by United States House of Representatives, in order to signal pages. The system that was eventually installed there resembled her invention.

The Inventive Benjamin Family

Miriam was not alone in her inventiveness. 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.

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

Death

Miriam Benjamin died in in 1947. The circumstances of her death are not published.

Legacy

Benjamin was the second African-American woman to receive a United States patent, after Sarah E. Good, who invented the folding cabinet bed three years prior, in 1885. Benjamin's invention was the precursor to the flight attendant call button, a key tool for customer service in the airline industry.

Sources

  • Brodie, James Michael. Created Equal The Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators. William Morrow and Co. Inc., 1993
  • Mahoney, Eleanor. “Miriam E. Benjamin (1861-1947) • BlackPast.” BlackPast, 14 Mar. 2019, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/benjamin-miriam-e-1861-1947/.
  • Miriam E. Benjamin: African American Inventor, www.myblackhistory.net/Miriam_Benjamin.htm.