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Lewis Temple, memorial
This date marks the birth of Lewis Temple, a Black inventor, in 1800.
He was born a slave in Richmond, VA, and went to New Bedford, MA, in 1829. By 1836, Temple was one of the 315,000 free Black people in the United States and a successful businessman who operated a whale craft shop on the New Bedford waterfront.
Based on conversations with the whalers who came to his shop to have their whaling tools made and to buy harpoons, Temple learned that many whales escaped, since the harpoons used at the time were not particularly effective in holding a struggling whale. He was the creator of a whaling harpoon, known as "Temple's Toggle" and "Temple's Iron" that became the standard harpoon of the whaling industry in the middle of the 19th century. Lewis Temple was a skilled blacksmith, not a whaler.
In 1848, Lewis Temple invented a new type of harpoon, with a movable head that prevented the whale from slipping loose. The Temple Iron was more effective than any other and when the head on Temple's harpoon became locked in the whale's flesh, and the only way to free the harpoon was to cut it loose after the whale was killed. Initially, whalers did not accept Temple's harpoon.
However, after some trials, most whaling captains were convinced that Temple's "Toggle Iron" was far superior to the ordinary barbed head harpoon. Lewis Temple never patented his invention, but was able to make a good living from his harpoon sales. Temple was able to buy the building next to his shop and, in 1854, arranged for construction of a blacksmith shop near Steamboat Wharf. Temple accidentally fell one night while walking near his new shop construction site. He never fully recovered from his injuries.
Temple was unable to return to work and died destitute in May 1854. Clifford Ashley, author of the book, "The Yankee Whaler," said that Temple's harpoon was "the single most important invention in the whole history of whaling."
Created Equal The Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators
By James Michael Brodie
Copyright 1993, by Bill Adler Books, Inc.
William Morrow and Co. Inc., New York