Many people aren’t familiar with who Miriam Benjamin is and what she accomplished despite her invention being adopted by various industries, some even many years after her death.
As the Civil War broke out, Benjamin was born a free black woman in Charleston, South Carolina on September 16, 1861. Her parents Francis and Eliza Benjamin had five children, Miriam was the oldest. At 12 the family moved to Boston, Massachusetts where she finished her primary education and high school.
In 1888, Miriam moved to Washington, DC where she worked as a school teacher in a segregated school system before attending Howard University’s Medical School. After passing a civil service exam, she decided to forgo medical school to take a job as a clerk in a number of federal departments. She then decided to enroll in Howard University’s Law School, upon graduation she set up her business as a solicitor of patents, which proved successful.
In 1920, Miriam returned to Boston where she lived with her mother and worked with her brother Edgar P. Benjamin, a well known lawyer, philanthropist and inventor.
GONG AND SIGNAL CHAIR
In 1888, Miriam applied for and received a patent for her invention, the Gong and Signal Chair, making her the second Black woman to receive a patent. Her 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. On her patent application she says: "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 service of pages.” We don’t know where the inspiration for her invention came from, but it received attention in the press and it was adopted by the United States House of Representatives to signal pages and was the precursor to the signaling system used on airplanes for passengers seeking assistance from flight attendants.
Miriam came from a family of inventive people. Her younger brother Lyde Wilson Benjamin (1865-1916), also an attorney, received a patent in 1893 for an improvement on "Broom Moisteners and Bridles." He designed a tin reservoir that attached to a broom to keep it moist so it wouldn’t produce as much dust as it swept across the floor. Miriam was also a signee for the patent.
Her youngest brother Edgar P. Benjamin (1869-1972), who she worked with, also received a patent in 1892 for a trouser protector or bicycle clip, which was a clip to keep trousers out of the way while bicycling.
Miriam Benjamin died in 1947. How she died is unknown. She never married or had any children. Her legacy lives on in the industries that have adopted her inventions and the people who continue to use it. Next time you're on a plane and use the call button for assistance, you have Miriam Benjamin to thank for that.
"Miriam Benjamin". Inventors. The Black Inventor On-Line Museum. 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
Daniel Smith Lamsity Medical Department (Washington, D.C., 1900), 235
Although she would consistently cite 1868 as her birthday 2nd Ward of the city of Charleston, Charleston County, South Carolina, page 117, lines 17–25 (misspelling her name as Marianna)
1880 Federal Census for Suffolk County (Massachusetts) Enumeration District 703, Sheet 14, Lines 42–45 (10 Dover Street, Boston, Mass. [1st Precinct of the 16th Ward])
Boyd's Directory of the District of Columbia(Washington, 1888), 208
Boyd's Directory of the District of Columbia (Washington, 1891), 212
1930 Federal Census for Suffolk County Enumeration District 13-319, Sheet 15-A, Lines 24–26 (50 Fernwood Road, Boston, Mass.)
McNeill, Leila (7 February 2017). "These Four Black Women Inventors Reimagined the Technology of the Home". Smithsonian. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
Massachusetts Deaths for 1947 6:63; Department of Public Health, Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. Massachusetts Vital Records Index to Deaths [1916–1970]. Volumes 66–145. Facsimile edition. Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.
1930 Federal Census
Massachusetts Deaths 258:7. Massachusetts State Archives, Columbia Point, Boston, Mass.
Anthony W. Neal, "Edgar P. Benjamin: Philanthropist, Noted Attorney and Banker," Bay State Banner, March 28, 2013, cited at http://baystatebanner.com/news/2013/mar/28/edgar-p-benjamin-philanthropist-noted-attorney-and/ Accessed September 10, 2013. He always used the date 1871 as his birthdate; however the 1870 Federal Census return cited above shows him as a six-month-old infant born the previous December.