In honor of Black History Month, we’ve been sharing the stories and contributions of two amazing Black inventors that changed the filtration industry. Missed the first one? Check out our blog on Andrew F. Hilyer here.
Dr. Rufus Stokes was born and raised in Alabama. Just before graduating high school he enlisted in the US Army. While he was in the army, he attended a technical school where he received auto mechanic training, the skills he learned while in school helped him find work in Missouri and Illinois following his honorable discharge (he was decorated with an American Defense Service Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and Good Conduct Medal).
In the late 1940s, he worked as an orderly in the Tuberculosis Sanitarium at the Chicago Veterans Administration Hospital. He witnessed first-hand the negative health effects of pollution. After two years at the Sanitarium, Stokes was hired as a machinist at an incinerator manufacturing company called Brule, Inc. in Chicago. He quickly learned the process of combustion and applied his technical and mechanical training to refining and designing new incinerators. He was never credited for his work which prompted him to leave the company and pursue his own work.
Inspired by his time working at the Sanitarium and Brule Inc., he became interested in air pollution that was being emitted by companies and wanted to figure out different ways to purify breathing air. In the late 1960s, Dr. Stokes invented the “Clean Air Machine”: an air-purification device that reduced the gas and ash emissions of furnaces and power plant smokestack emissions.
The core of Dr. Stokes’ technology was his unique utilization of what he described as “the three Ts”:
Dr. Stokes created a small domestic version and a larger mobile version of the air purification device to show its versatility. Unlike typical air pollution control technologies that were more cumbersome and less efficient the larger they became, the “Clean Air Machine” was not limited by design and configuration; its efficiency remained excellent regardless of industrial or residential applications.
Dr. Stokes’ “Clean Air Machine” improved the respiratory health of so many people and significantly reduced health risks to plants and animals. An additional benefit of reduced industrial stack emissions was the improved appearance and durability of buildings, cars, and objects exposed to outdoor pollution for lengthy periods of time. His work also pioneered and encouraged scientists to contribute to clean air and the reduction of pollution.
With major companies denying smog emissions caused disbelief in how efficient the “Clean Air Machine” was. Many were unwilling to invest which prevented widespread use of Dr. Stokes inventions. However, his patent inspired close to 30 inventions in air purification for both industrial and residential environments. Ironically, Dr. Stokes died of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related disease in 1986 after moving to California to consult the Los Angeles Hyperian Wastewater Treatment Facility. Since his death, Dr. Stokes has been honored with inclusion in the United States Department of Energy’s (DOE) list of “Energy Pioneers” and acknowledged in the technology white paper “Quantum Parallel”.
The response to this blog series has been overwhelming and we are so thankful to those who have commented and encouraged us to keep doing things like this. We hope to start doing more things like this over here on our little corner of the internet.
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