The Immortal Coil

When you think about the inventions that changed the way we live, many achievements come to mind. What may you may not think of, however, are the seemingly inconsequential developments that we use on a daily basis, such as the doorstop. The improvised children’s plaything and unassuming household item was patented on December 10, 1878. The name attributed to this patent was Osbourn Dorsey. Dorsey is credited with creating both the doorknob and the doorstop. Because he was a 19th century African American, little record remains about the rest of his life. Dorsey was one of many obscure African American inventors who made important contributions to practical living, but were robbed of their just desserts by the pervasive racism of the society they lived in.

Emancipation gave Dorsey a sliver of the recognition that he deserved, along with other inventors such as Onesimus, a man from Massachusetts who is now credited with creating a cure for smallpox. Another slave, named Papan, was so successful in treating STDs and diseases of the skin, that he was freed by the state of Virginia so as to be able to practice medicine. Both Onesimus and Papan were legally unable to hold patents for their work while they were enslaved.

Before Dorsey developed his revolutionary door knob and stop, doors were operated by levers and heavy locks. Security was a privilege of the wealthy, as they were the only ones who could afford the costly mechanisms that kept the reprobates at bay. The invention of the doorknob revolutionized the door. While this may not sound impressive, the effect of this advance was a measure of affordable security that had been previously unavailable to the common people. It’s a reminder that the household items we take for granted were at one point in time a luxury.

Dorsey’s inventions also stand as a testament to the often undervalued contributions of African American inventors who played a hand in designing the world we see around us today.

While his original doorstop may now have faded in practical popularity, its contemporary serves a vital task of preserving the buildings that they’re installed in. They also exist in the childhood nostalgia of many as an engrossing toy and pastime. While the forward march of time may eventually remove the need for doorstops and door knobs entirely, remembering the contributions of inventors such as Dorsey is vital in honoring those who were underappreciated and undervalued in their own time.

 

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