John Burr was born in Maryland in 1848. He was the son of freed slaves and worked as a field hand until he was about 17. At 18 he managed, with the patronage of wealthy African American activists, to attend engineering classes at a nearby private university in Maryland. Burr excelled in his studies. He was one of the brightest students in his cohort.
Burr made a comfortable living as a machinist. He spent most of his time servicing farm equipment. He was an able repairman and a capable steelworker. He moved to Chicago sometime in the 1870s. There, he continued to work in repair and maintenance. He would not begin successful inventing until the 1890s.