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.
Goode is believed to have been the second African-American woman
to receive a patent.
was the only person to be identified in the Patent Office records as "a
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.
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,
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
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,
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
page > African American Inventors
- The Computers Whiz
the materials found on these pages was provided courtesy of the United
States Patent and Trademark Office