Inventors, not inventions, are this couple’s thing

Black inventors showcased in traveling museum

Carroll and Sandra Lamb founded the Institute for Black Inventions & Technology about 16 years ago. The traveling museum highlights the role black inventors have had in everyday products.
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Carroll and Sandra Lamb founded the Institute for Black Inventions & Technology about 16 years ago. The traveling museum highlights the role black inventors have had in everyday products.

In less than three weeks, Carroll and Sandra Lamb will walk into the Kansas City-equivalent of a Shark-Tank moment. They’ll show off not one invention but scores of them.

A personal digital assistant. A lemony fragrance for dish washing soap. Talking “SmartButtons” for toddlers’ shoes. A traffic signal, toggle harpoon, golf tee and clothes wringer. An automobile throttle.

The retired couple’s list goes on and on, but these are not their inventions. She was in education, and he was in human resources.

The Lambs’ contribution is the Institute for Black Invention & Technology, a Kansas City-based showcase for the products and innovations of black inventors.

Like the golf tee, patented more than 100 years ago by George F. Grant.

“I worked at Spalding,” Carroll Lamb said of the sporting goods company. “No one ever mentioned to me that George Grant was the inventor of the golf tee.”

And that’s the idea behind the institute. Years ago, the Lambs went to an exposition in Philadelphia and saw references to some everyday products that black inventors had come up with — she specifically remembers an ice cream scoop.

They’d had no idea and founded the institute because they realized practically no one else knew either.

Carroll recalled the moment: “She said, ‘I think the kids should see this,’ and I said, ‘I think everybody should see it.’ 

Robot hunt

The institute takes those inventions and the stories of the inventors on the road. It’s a traveling museum.

Its exhibits include those talking buttons for toddlers’ shoes that were invented by a middle-schooler named Joel Williams. There’s an Apple product, part of the company’s early experiment in tablet computing, that showcases the inventive efforts of Donna Auguste. And the museum includes a bottle of lemon-scented Cascade, the lemon addition being the work of Dennis Weatherby.

“We either have the actual invention or, sometimes, we’ve had a model made,” Sandra Lamb said. “So when children or anyone saw these inventions, they would see what had actually been invented.”

Like the toggle harpoon Lewis Temple invented for whalers in the mid-1800s. The real deal. Part of the exhibit. The exhibit’s traffic signal — with arms that say STOP and GO and invented in 1923 by Garrett A. Morgan — is a $200 reproduction they had made.

The work means the Lambs spend their time researching in libraries, verifying online claims (George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter), pulling patent documents and hunting down the inventions.

“We’re trying to get our hands on some micro robots,” Carroll Lamb said, citing the work of James McLurkin and his ant-inspired swarming microbots.

Making a home

The Lambs have taken their Black Inventors Showcase and smaller Traveling Trunk to schools, universities and businesses around Kansas City and the nation.

Three hours to set up and three more to take down, the showcase spreads the work of more than 100 inventors across 32 tables.

What the couple can’t do is take everything back to the Institute. It exists only on the road. Between exhibits, those scores of inventions head back to Sandra Lamb’s mom’s house.

The Lambs are working on a potential site for the Institute. And that’s where their Shark-Tank moment comes in.

The Kauffman Foundation is hosting a private showcase early next month for potential backers and “friends of the Institute.” Carroll and Sandra Lamb hope it helps turn their contribution to black invention into something more than a traveling show.

To contact the Black Institute for Invention and Technology about exhibits, visit its website or call 816-550-3585.

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar