By Dora Mekouar for Voice of America.
From the three-light traffic signal, refrigerated trucks, automatic elevator doors, color monitors for desktop computers, to the shape of the modern ironing board, the clothes wringer, blood banks, laser treatment for cataracts, home security systems and the super-soaker children’s toy, many objects and services Americans use every day were invented by Black men and women.
These innovators were recognized for their inventions, but countless other inventors of color have gone largely unrecognized. Others are completely lost to history.
“There were some instances where Black inventors would compete with Alexander Graham Bell, with Thomas Edison, where their inventions were really just as good and just as transformative, but they just did not have access to the capital,” says Shontavia Johnson, an entrepreneur and associate vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation at Clemson University in South Carolina. “They did not have access to all these different systems that the United States puts in place to support inventors.”
Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the lightbulb, but it was Lewis Latimer, the son of formerly enslaved people, who patented a new filament that extended the lifespan of lightbulbs so they wouldn’t die out after a few days. Latimer got a patent for his invention in 1882, something countless Black innovators in the generations before him were unable to do.
Free Black citizens could obtain patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but enslaved Black people could not. Slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865, with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Prior to that, the inventions of Black innovators were often claimed by their enslavers or other white people.
Modern-day research suggests that was the case with the technology behind the cotton gin — a device that separated cotton seeds from their fibers. It was largely innovated by enslaved Black people, but a white man named Eli Whitney obtained the patent for the invention.
“We often count our country as being this place where innovation and entrepreneurship thrive,” Johnson says. “But when you completely exclude a group of people from access to the patent system, … exploiting their invention, then the natural result of that is, you look at the most important inventors and innovators in American history … and they pretty much are your stereotypical white male inventor, not because other people have not been innovative, too, it’s just these folks have been excluded from the patent system.”
This deliberate early exclusion of Black inventors from the patent system and, in large part, the pantheon of great American inventors, was rooted in racist assumptions about the intellectual inferiority of Black people, according to Rayvon Fouché, a professor of American studies at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana.
“Invention was seen as this God-given ability. So, as you can imagine, all the perceptions, ideas about masculinity, maleness, power [and] authority are all wrapped into this vision of inventiveness,” says Fouché, who also leads the National Science Foundation’s Social and Economic Sciences Division. “The inherent understanding of what an inventor is and was and could be — the framing of that term — eliminated the possibility for all Black folks and all marginalized people.”
Other barriers Black inventors historically faced included less access to equal education, systematic exclusion from professional scientific and engineering
societies, limited access to wealthy investors and mainstream banks for start-up capital to commercialize their inventions, and racial violence.
Black inventors were also less involved in patenting activity between 1870 and 1940, during times of lynchings, race riots and segregation laws in the United States.
There were also the Black creators who came up with innovations that didn’t necessarily fit the traditional ideas of inventiveness.
“For much of our history, when we think about the word ‘invention,’ it’s sort of freighted with these white, Eurocentric notions of what that means,” says Eric Hintz, a historian with the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Often, the traditional definition of ‘invention’ is something like a machine that saves human labor or animal labor, that does some task more efficiently.”
That kept certain innovations by Black people from being recognized by the patent system.
“[The patent system] is built on this model that basically assumes innovation is desirable when it’s tied to commercial benefit. But if it is rooted in community survival or the needs of society, that is not worthy of protection, and we see that in the law,” Johnson says. “There are certain types of things that are patentable, and certain things that are not patentable, and that is a distinction that I do think leaves a lot of people out of the ecosystem.”
A New York DJ known as Grandmaster Flash pioneered the use of record turntables as an instrument by using his fingers to manipulate the sounds backward and forward or to slow it down. He had an innovative style of mixing records and blending beats that pioneered the art of deejaying, but he holds no patents.
“Black people have been doing lots of creative, innovative things,” Fouché says. “We can think about all kinds of technological creative things within the context of hip-hop and music production and art in other ways. But of course, the patent office is driven by techno-scientific innovation. And I think part of it is, for me, to open up the conversation of what inventiveness is and can be.”
Museum collections have historically excluded the contributions of marginalized people, a failing the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center readily acknowledges.
“Definitely the Smithsonian and other libraries and museums have been complicit over the decades, over the centuries, of privileging white inventors in the things that we collect,” says Hintz. “We have a ton of stuff on Edison and Tesla [electricity] and Steve Jobs [innovator of Apple products and devices] and whomever, but it’s incumbent on us now to make sure that we’re preserving the stories of Madam C.J. Walker, Grandmaster Flash, Lonnie Johnson — who invented the Super Soaker, of Patricia Bath, an ophthalmologist who invented a way of eradicating cataracts.”
Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire, built her fortune with a line of hair care products for Black women. Black people also invented the clothes dryer, the automatic gear shift in vehicles, the modern toilet, lawn sprinkler, peanut butter and potato chips.
But the innovation gap persists. African Americans and women still participate at each stage of the innovation process at lower rates than their male and white counterparts.
“How do you get more Black kids, girls [and] marginalized people into these pathways that have been traditionally white, middle class and male?” Fouché says, emphasizing the importance of sparking children’s imaginations, despite any obstacles.
“I’m more interested in saying, ‘Well, what do you want to do? How do you want to change the world? What are the things that are meaningful to you?’ and just impressing upon people the limitless opportunities. … So, don’t limit the possibilities.”