Updated: Aug 23, 2019
Miriam Benjamin (September 16, 1861–1947) was a Washington, D.C. school teacher and the second black woman to receive a patent in the United States, given to her in 1888 for an invention she called a Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels. This device was originally used to call the wait staff over to the chair requesting service in hotels and was later adapted into the flight attendant call button on commercial aircrafts which we still use today.
Miriam Benjamin (September 16, 1861–1947) was born in Charleston, South Carolina as a free person. Her family then moved to Boston, Massachusetts where her mother hoped to give her access to better education. Benjamin later moved to Washington, DC and worked as a school teacher when she received her patent for the Gong and Signal Chair in 1888. She continued her education at Howard University where she later graduated from Howard University law school and became a solicitor of patents. In 1920, she returned home to work for her brother, noted attorney Edgar Pinkerton Benjamin.
The Gong and Signal Chair was created to allow hotel customers to call a waiter from their seat. A button on the chair would alert the waiters’ station and a light on the chair would let the wait staff know who was requesting them. Her patent notes that the invention 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 services of pages." Patent number 386,289 was issued to Miriam Benjamin on July 17, 1888.
Her invention received attention from the press. Miriam Benjamin lobbied to have her Gong and Signal Chair adopted by the United States House of Representatives, in order to signal pages. The system that was eventually installed there resembled her invention. Benjamin was the second African-American woman to receive a United States patent, after Sarah E. Good, who invented the folding cabinet bed three years prior in 1885. Benjamin's invention was the precursor to the flight attendant call button, a key tool for customer service in the airline industry.
Bellis, Mary. “Biography of Miriam Benjamin, Inventor of a Signal Chair.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 19 June 2019, www.thoughtco.com/biography-miriam-benjamin-4077063.
Brodie, James Michael. Created Equal The Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators. William Morrow and Co. Inc., 1993