Shining a Light on Black History Month

It’s not often that inventions become the subject of US election campaign speeches, but then 2020 has been anything but usual. Our curiosity was piqued by Joe Biden’s reference, in a recent speech, to Lewis Latimer (a black man) having invented the light bulb, rather than Thomas Edison (a white man). Black History Month seems a perfect opportunity to get to the truth of the matter and to explore the history around black inventors who have changed the world, but have, sadly, struggled to get credit for their hard work.

In fact, Lewis Howard Latimer (1848 – 1928) was indeed a prolific inventor and was named as such on at least eight US patents – relating to not only electric lamps but also air conditioning units, coat racks and toilet systems. He did not invent the light bulb itself, but he did provide several improvements to it, including an improved method of making the carbon filaments. He was also intimately familiar with the world of intellectual property, having worked as head draughtsman in a US patent law firm, and ultimately becoming a patent consultant.

So Biden’s headline example may have been incorrect, but history shows there are many cases in which inventions have been accredited to the wrong inventor due to race.

The patent system exists to foster innovation, by granting the patent owner a monopoly over an invention. The patent is granted to the person who came up with the invention, or their successor in title, meaning that it is always critical to establish who the inventor is. In general, patent laws (including the US patent system) were written using colour-blind language, so race should not have been relevant. Despite this, especially in the US, in the past there were many factors at play which made it difficult for black inventors to “reap the rewards” of their hard work.

Originally, United States patent law allowed both freed and enslaved people to obtain patents. Nonetheless, in practice obtaining a patent during slavery was difficult, due at least in part to discrimination and lack of access to education. Black people who did apply for patents often felt it necessary to conceal their race from the Patent Office, and it was the ‘norm’ for slaves to sign their patents with the letter ‘X’.This may have been due to illiteracy as slaves found reading, writing or teaching others could be punished severely or even killed. Others partnered with Caucasians as proxies to obtain patents. For instance, Henry Boyd (1802 – 1866) bought his freedom in 1826 and invented a new type of bed frame. He partnered with a Caucasian (George Porter) who applied for the patent in his own name. The patent was granted to Boyd’s proxy in 1835.

Some black inventors did succeed in obtaining patents, however. Thomas Jennings (1791-1856) was a freedman, a tradesman and abolitionist. He invented a process called “dry-scouring,” receiving a patent in 1821 and becoming the first male African American to be granted a patent. His dry scouring process was a predecessor to today’s dry cleaning methods.

Henry Blair (1807 – 1860) invented a seed planter, which allowed farmers to plant more corn using less labour and in a shorter time. He was granted a patent for his invention in 1834. His second patent for a cotton planter, granted in 1836, worked by splitting the ground with two shovel-like blades pulled along by a horse. A wheel-driven cylinder followed behind which dropped the seed into the newly ploughed ground. Patent records lists Blair as a “coloured man”. He was described as a “freedman” (a formerly enslaved person who has been released from slavery, usually by legal means) and at the time his patent was granted, United States patent law allowed him to own it.

However, this law was challenged in 1857 when a slave-owner (Oscar Stuart), claimed he owned “all the fruits of the slave’s labour”. Oscar Stuart’s challenge led to a change in US law in 1858 stating that slaves were not citizens and were deemed to be property themselves. This meant they were not allowed to hold property. This in turn meant they could not hold patents to the inventions they had created. This led to an era where the “owner” of the enslaved person profited from their invention. Only in 1871 did US law change again, granting all men, regardless of race, the right to patent their invention.

This helped open the door for many other black inventors, such as Judy W. Reed (1826 – 1905) who received a patent in 1886 for her dough kneader and roller invention. Her invention was an improved design of existing rollers with dough mixing more evenly while being kept covered and protected.

Fast-forward 150 years and, whilst racism has not disappeared from the world, the concept of a patent system which discriminates against an inventor due to their race is unthinkable, and rightly so. It is good to see black inventors being credited for their work just like any other. People of African Diaspora have been responsible for some of the world’s most innovative and useful creations. Just to name a few examples, Dr. Philip Emeagwali developed the fastest supercomputer software in the world. Dr. Marian Croak invented the Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP). Lisa Gelobter helped develop early web animation that led to the advent of Shockwave. Alice H. Parker revolutionized the way we heat our living or working spaces. The list is endless!

GJE is committed to promoting equality across all areas of our business, and has a dedicated diversity & inclusion group tasked with this aim. We seek to improve diversity and inclusion in the IP profession and are a long-standing member of IPInclusive and supporter of IP&ME.


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