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William B. Purvis, born August 12, 1838, was an inventor and businessman who received multiple patents in the late 1800s. His inventions included improvements on paper bags, an updated fountain pen design, improvement to the hand stamp, and a close-conduit electric railway system.
Born in Pennsylvania, Purvis was one of eight children to a wealthy and influential Black family.
William Purvis was born into Black excellence.
His father, Joseph Purvis, was a gentleman farmer and mother, Sarah Louisa Forten Purvis, was a noted poet. William’s maternal grandfather was African-American sailmaker, merchant, philanthropist, inventor, civil rights agitator and Abolitionist James Forten; his uncle was Robert Purvis, wealthy businessman, abolitionist and landowner; his aunts included educator Margaretta Forten and essayist and poet Harriet Forten Purvis; cousins included Dr. Charles Burleigh Purvis of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D. C., suffragist and author Harriet Purvis, Jr., and educator, poet and essayist Charlotte Forten Grimke.
Purvis’s upbringing is credited to his uncle who was working for the Underground Railroad.
In his youth, William Purvis worked many low-paying jobs and did many experiments for his inventions. Purvis had a particular interest in paper bags, and continually attempted to improve upon the bag-making process. From 1884 to 1897, he was granted at least six different patents for paper bag technology. In August 1890 Purvis was issued a patent for an improved paper bag machine manufactured satchel bottom shopping bags at an improved volume with greater automation than any previous machinery.
Despite holding 12 patents on paper bag manufacturing machines, his first business attempt was not successful. His first company, The Sterling Paper Bag Company, bankrupted in 1884. He owed $100,00, and his wealthy uncle Robert Purvis repaid his debts. Even though his company failed, he was able to sell his patents to the Eastern Paper Bag Company in Pennsylvania.
In spite of his creativity and innovation, Purvis was mostly self-taught, having never obtained higher education. Yet, that would not stop him from receiving his first patent in February 27, 1883, for an improvement of the hand stamp that enabled it to replenish its own ink.
According to Purvis, his updated design of the fountain pen was intended to provide a simple, durable, and cheaper construction so the pen could be carried in someone’s pocket. Purvis set an elastic tube between the pen nib and the ink reservoir, enabling the tube to return the excess ink to the reservoir. After this improvement, the new pen could evenly distribute the ink when being used. For this design, Purvis received U.S. Patent 419,065 on January 7, 1890.
First installed in New Jersey, Purvis’s close-conduit electric railway system set an electromagnet under the center of the railcar. The closed conduit construction was made by insulating material, and installing many soft iron cables on its surface.
The cable was attracted upwardly against the top of the space in which it lay, making contact with a brass strip. According to Dr. John MacFadyen, the superintendent of the Installation, the new system was safer and cheaper than the old system, and he believed the new system would replace the old one in the near future.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Purvis established the Union Electric Construction Company in New York and became the president of his company. The company appeared on the stock market in May 1900, offering 40,000 shares for subscription at $5 per share.
William Purvis remained unmarried and lived with his sister in Darby, Pennsylvania until he passed away two days before his 76th birthday on August 10, 1914.