Humanities › History & Culture Inventor Thomas Elkins Share Flipboard Email Print Fototeca Storica Nazionale. / Contributor/Getty Images History & Culture Inventions Famous Inventions Famous Inventors Patents & Trademarks Invention Timelines Computers & The Internet American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Mary Bellis Inventions Expert Mary Bellis covered inventions and inventors for ThoughtCo for 18 years. She is known for her independent films and documentaries, including one about Alexander Graham Bell. our editorial process Mary Bellis Updated May 13, 2019 Dr. Thomas Elkins, a Black American inventor, was a pharmacist and respected member of the Albany community. An abolitionist, Elkins was the secretary of the Vigilance Committee. As the 1830s drew to a close and the decade of the 1840s began, committees of citizens were formed all across the north with the intention of protecting self-liberated enslaved people from re-enslavement. As there were people who sought to return those self-emancipated to their enslavers, vigilance committees provided legal assistance, food, clothing, money, sometimes employment, temporary shelter, and assisted the self-liberated in making their way toward freedom. Albany had a vigilance committee in the early 1840s and into the 1850s. The Refrigerator An improved refrigerator design was patented by Elkins on November 4, 1879. He designed the device to help people have a way of preserving perishable foods. At that time, the common way of keeping food cold was to place items in a large container and surround them with large blocks of ice. Unfortunately, the ice generally melted very quickly and the food soon perished. One unusual fact about Elkins' refrigerator was that it was also designed to chill human corpses. Elkins' patent was for an insulated cabinet into which ice is placed to cool the interior. As such, it was a "refrigerator" only in the old sense of the term, which included non-mechanical coolers. Elkins acknowledged in his patent that, "I am aware that chilling substances enclosed within a porous box or jar by wetting its outer surface is an old and well-known process." The Commode The Minoans of Crete are said to have invented a flush toilet thousands of years ago; however, there is probably no direct ancestral relationship between it and the modern one that evolved primarily in England starting in the late 16th century, when Sir John Harrington devised a flushing device for his godmother Queen Elizabeth. In 1775, Alexander Cummings patented a toilet in which some water remained after each flush, thereby suppressing odors from below. In 1872, a U.S. patent was issued to Elkins for a new article of chamber furniture which he designated a "Chamber Commode" (Patent No. 122,518). Elkins' commode was a combination bureau, mirror, book-rack, washstand, table, easy chair, and chamber stool. It was a very unusual piece of furniture which might otherwise be constructed as several separate articles. The "water closet" continued to evolve, and in 1885, Thomas Twyford provided us with a single-piece ceramic toilet similar to the one we know today. Unique Folding Table A patent was also issued to Elkins on February 22, 1870, for a combined "Dining, Ironing Table and Quilting Frame Combined" (No. 100,020). The table seems to be little more than a folding table.