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Patent Points To Ponder - Colors of Innovation
Part One: African American Inventors
Lewis Latimer
Lewis Latimer
African American Inventors
• Part I African American  Inventors
Part 2 African American Inventors
Part 3 African American Inventors
Part 4 African American Inventors
Quiz on African American Inventors
 Other Patent Points To Ponder
A Patent for a President
Fingerprints of Commerce
The Art of Toys
Three Part Harmony
The Art of Photography
The House That Innovation Built
Colors of Innovation
Mothers of Invention

Thomas L. Jennings, born in 1791, is believed to have been the first Black person to receive a patent for an invention. He was 30 years old when he was granted a patent for a dry cleaning process. Jennings was a free tradesman and operated a dry cleaning business in New York City. His income went mostly to his abolitionist activities. In 1831, he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, PA. Slaves were prohibited from receiving patents on their inventions. Although free Black inventors were legally able to receive patents, most did not. Some feared that recognition—and most likely the prejudice that would come with it—would destroy their livelihoods.

Rep. George Washington Murray was a teacher, farmer, and U.S. Congressman from South Carolina from 1893 to 1897. From his seat in the House of  representatives, Murray was in a unique position to bring into focus the achievements of a people recently emancipated. Speaking on behalf of proposed legislation for a Cotton States Exhibition to publicize the South’s technological process since the Civil War, Murray urged that a separate space be reserved to display some of the achievements of southern Blacks. He explained the reasons why Blacks should participate in regional and national expositions saying:

"Mr. Speaker, the colored people of this country want an opportunity to show that the progress, that the civilization which is now admired the world over, that the civilization which is now leading the world, that the civilization which all nations of the world look up to and imitate--the colored people, I say, want an opportunity to show that they, too, are part and parcel of that great civilization."

And he proceeded to read the names and inventions of 92 Black inventors into the Congressional Record.

Judy W. Reed may not have been able to write her name, but she patented a hand-operated machine for kneading and rolling dough. She is probably the first African-American woman to obtain a patent.

Sarah E. Goode is believed to have been the second African-American woman to receive a patent.

Henry Blair was the only person to be identified in the Patent Office records as "a colored man."

What we know about early African American innovators comes mostly from the work of Henry Baker. He was an assistant patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office who was dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the contributions of Black inventors. Around 1900, the Patent Office conducted a survey to gather information about Black inventors and their inventions. Letters were sent to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors, and prominent African-Americans. Baker recorded the replies and followed-up on leads. Baker’s research also provided the information used to select Black inventions exhibited at the Cotton Centennial in New Orleans, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta. By the time of his death, Baker had compiled four massive volumes.

Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848. He enlisted in the Union Navy at the age of 15 and upon completion of his military service, returned to Massachusetts and was employed by a patent solicitor where he began the study of drafting. His talent for drafting and his creative genius led him to invent a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp. In 1881, he supervised installation of electric light in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. Latimer was the original draftsman for Thomas Edison and as such was the star witness in Edison’s infringement suits. Latimer had many interests. He was a draftsman, engineer, author, poet, musician, and, at the same time, a devoted family man and philanthropist.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856, Granville T. Woods dedicated his life to developing a variety of inventions relating to the railroad industry. To some he was known as the "Black Edison". Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and many more for controlling the flow of electricity. His most noted invention was a system for letting the engineer of a train know how close his train was to others. This device helped cut down accidents and collisions between trains.

Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to Woods’ "telegraphony," enabling him to become a full-time inventor. Among his other top inventions were a steam boiler furnace and an automatic air brake used to slow or stop trains. Wood’s electric car was powered by overhead wires. It was the third rail system to keep cars running on the right track.

Success led to law suits filed by Thomas Edison. Woods eventually won, but Edison didn’t give up easily when he wanted something. Trying to win Woods over, and his inventions, Edison offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods, preferring his independence, declined.

Dr. Meridith Groudine was born in New Jersey in 1929 and grew up in the streets of Harlem and Brooklyn. He attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and received a Ph.D. in Engineering Science from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Gourdine built a multi-million dollar corporation that is based on his ideas in the field of electrogasdynamics (EGD). Using the principles of EGD, Gourdine successfully converted natural gas to electricity for everyday use. Applications of EGD include refrigeration, desalination of sea water, and reducing the pollutants in smoke. He holds more than 40 patents for various inventions. In 1964, served on the President’s Panel on Energy.

Next page > African American Inventors - The Computers Whiz

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