George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, seen circa 1915, earned great fame as an inventor and director of the Agriculture Department of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

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Few famous Americans enjoy a status as mythic as that of George Washington Carver, a man whose life as a botanist, agronomist, chemist and inventor earned him a lasting place in the history books. Nicknamed the "Black Leonardo" by TIME Magazine in 1941, Carver is one of the most revered figures in early 20th century African-American history, and his work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama is considered instrumental in changing Southern approaches to agriculture [source: TIME].

In 1896, Carver accepted an invitation from Booker T. Washington to lead the Agriculture Department at the recently formed Tuskegee Institute, where he would remain -- teaching and conducting laboratory work -- for most of his life [source: American Heritage]. At Tuskegee, Carver wore several hats, serving as a teacher, testing crop varieties and fertilizers, writing bulletins for farmers and managing research at his experiment station.

Carver recognized that widespread monoculture of cotton among Southern farmers was stripping the soil of nutrients, leading to erosion and leaving black farmers destitute [source:]. He therefore devoted much of his energy to studying the use of natural fertilizers and nutrient-restoring techniques, like crop rotation, as well as promoting alternatives to cotton, like sweet potatoes and peanuts.

At his experiment station, Carver worked to develop new uses for those alternative crops. Hoping to spark an increased demand for them, he created products as varied as soaps and cosmetics to adhesives, greases and paints. Although Carver is credited with inventing hundreds of new uses for sweet potatoes and peanuts, few of his inventions ever caught on commercially, and he didn't file patents for the vast majority of his work. It was only after his teaching load greatly diminished in the 1920s that Carver made a serious effort to market any of his inventions, forming the Carver Products Company with several Atlanta businessmen. However, the company only ended up patenting three inventions -- two for paint and one for cosmetics -- the only patents in Carver's name [source: Abrams].

Over time, countless books (mostly written for kids) have helped to spread the legend of Carver's accomplishments, while most of his actual inventions have drifted into obscurity.