Claude Harvard was born on March 11, 1911 in Dublin, Georgia. He attended Telfair School, which was then located on Pritchett Street. His teacher and school principal Susie White Dasher was more than proud of Claude. Mrs. Dasher related that he was a mathematical wizard and was always at the top of his class.
Claude’s interest in science and technology was aroused around 1921when he read a magazine article about owning your own wireless radio set. The first radio station in the country, KDKA in Pittsburgh, went on the air in November 1920. Georgia wouldn’t have its own station until 1922 when WSB began broadcasting from Atlanta. Claude was determined to own his own radio. He saved his pennies and sold salve to raise the money.
By 1922, it became impossible for many black tenant farmer families to survive in the boll weevil ridden cotton fields of Georgia. The Harvard family moved to Detroit, Michigan with hopes of a newfound prosperity. With his most priceless possession in hand, Claude left the relative tranquility of Dublin for the bright lights of big city life.
Claude enrolled in a machine shop class in high school. His teacher observed his talent and recommended him for admission to The Henry Ford Trade School in 1926. Auto magnate Henry Ford established the School in 1916 to train orphaned children to become workers for his auto plants. Despite the fact that he was not an orphan, Claude was accepted in the school because of his impressive talents in machining and metal work. The cards were stacked against Claude at the school where blacks seldom graduated because of the rule against fighting. The principal figured that Claude wouldn’t make it at the school because there was no way he could finish his classes without getting into a fight with the white kids. Claude kept his temper and avoided any scrapes. He excelled in every course at the school. He was elected president of the radio club at the school. Ten students in the club took a test to become a certified amateur operator. Claude, the only one of the group to pass the test, became the first African-American in Michigan to receive an amateur radio license. Harvard, known as "The African Pounder," worked at the school radio station WARC. Upon completion of his courses at the Henry Ford Trade School, Claude Harvard was at the top of his class.
Despite the fact that Claude had reached the pinnacle of success at the school, he was denied the automatic right to a union card because of his race. Harvard later found out later that all of his applications for Union membership had been discarded in the trash can. But Harvard’s talents couldn’t be discarded. The Ford Motor Company hired him anyway and assigned him as the head of the radio department.
In 1934 at the age of twenty-three, Claude was personally selected by Henry Ford to display his ground breaking invention of a piston pin inspection machine at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Harvard’s most well known invention allowed workers to clean the surfaces of auto pistons to one 1/10,000 of an inch. His machine determined the proper hardness of pistons and checked the length and diameter of its grooves, rejecting any defective parts in the sorting phase. Claude Harvard never forgot the pride he felt at the Exposition. He was deeply honored by Ford’s confidence in him as well as the pride he felt when other black attendees came to his booth.
Impressed with Harvard’s remarkable abilities, Henry Ford asked Claude to speak on behalf of the company at Tuskegee Institute. With only one day to prepare the speech, Harvard rapidly researched his topic and presented to Ford by the end of the day. The Institute’s iconic scientist George Washington Carver in welcomed Claude to the school and issued a rare personal invitation to tour his personal laboratory. As a token of his gratitude, Carver presented Harvard samples of his work and an autographed picture of himself. Carver remained fond of Harvard and his work and often inquired of him in conversations with Ford. In 1937, Harvard was again honored by Ford when he appeared in an advertisement in Popular Science Monthly.
While at Ford Motor Company, Claude Harvard patented twenty-nine inventions for the manufacture of Ford automobiles, though he reaped none of the royalties and profits of his genius, all in accordance with a company policy, which required employees to relinquish their inventions to the company. One invention was sold for a quarter of a million dollars to U.S. Steel. He left the company to establish his own business, the Exact Tool & Die Company. The initially successful business failed when white employees of customer companies found out they were doing business with a black businessman. Claude went to work for the Federal government but soon discovered that he was discriminated against in his pay scale. An old friend from the Ford Trade School suggested that he take an employment test at the Detroit Arsenal. Claude quickly solved a trigonometry problem and passed a subsequent civil service exam. Harvard worked at the Arsenal until his retirement.
Harvard came out of retirement when he began teaching at HOPE Machinist Training Institute in Detroit in the early 1980s. The school was organized to teach hands on training for minority youths. After two years, Harvard became an unpaid volunteer at the school. He designed implements and guides to facilitate the production of metal parts. Harvard maintained that it was the vast experience of himself and other instructors which contributed to better teaching of young students. Though machine work was controlled by computers, Harvard maintained that the process was still basically the same as it was in the 1930s. He encouraged his students and all children to study math and to put as much effort into learning as they do into sports. In a 1997 interview with Otha R. Sullivan Harvard offered these words of advice, "Have you noticed how kids exercise, play sports and learn dances? If they treated their brains the way they treat their bodies, they would be great. If you gave your brains half the exercise you give your muscles, you’d be very smart. Kids shouldn’t be afraid of mathematics and science. The subjects aren’t as hard as they look. I especially recommend that young people tackle mathematics. It really isn’t that difficult. Apparently, the teachers just make it seem that way."
Claude Harvard died in 1999 in adopted hometown of Detroit. The young Dublin boy who once dreamed of owning his own radio has been heralded as one the greatest African American inventors of the 20th Century.
Harvard was philosophical about the impediments of racism in America and encouraged others to aspire to his goals. In a 1937 interview, Harvard said "The Negro boy who is complaining about the breaks against him should stop squawking and do as this black boy did and make the grade in spite of being black. I must make the grade." In chronicling the early successes of the young inventor, Herbert H. "Hub" Dudley, Dublin’s leading black businessman and a columnist for the Dublin Courier Herald wrote, "Genius knows no color or creed. The World loves a contributor to civilization."