Book Review: Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation — Modern Times Legal (2022)

“Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation” by Rayvon Fouche (professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0801882702

This book caught my attention, as I developed an interest in better understanding the experience and role of African-American inventors before the civil rights movement, particularly after I saw that the home address listed on a patent for one of the featured inventors, Lewis H. Lattimer, was in Somerville, Massachusetts, which is where I lived.

Fouche provides a scholarly and balanced analysis of the "myths" of the black inventor in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Across many cultures, great inventors are routinely lionized as intellecual heroes and are widely known for advancing society by virtue of their inventions (e.g., Thomas Edison and his light bulb). But often, and particularly with African-American inventors, we know very little about the inventor, himself (or, on occasion, herself).

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Were these early African-American inventors really heroic figures? What drove them and what was their experience? In the case of the early black inventor, was promoting the standing of black Americans toward racial equality even a priority for them? And how did public opinion toward their race hurt (or help) them along the way?

Fouche explores these issues and more as he unravels the stories behind the following three prominent African-American inventors around the turn of the last century: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Lattimer, and Shelby J. Davidson.

Woods’ story was particularly intriguing. Born in Australia in 1856, with mixed aborigine, Malay, and African ancestry, Woods (like many inventors of all races) demonstrated fierce determination and persistence in attempting to capitalize his inventions and bring them to market. There appears to be no evidence that he viewed himself as a champion of the African-American race or even that he felt particularly strong ties toward it. Rather, he seemed to be more of a quintessential inventor, focused doggedly on inventing, advancing technology and obtaining a degree of wealth from his inventions.

Perhaps ironically, many of Woods' inventions were directed to train and railway technology (particularly electronic communication systems for trains), at a time when African-Americans could not ride along whites aboard trains in America. And contrary to many popular myths, his myriad of inventions never brought him great wealth. All inventors face significant hurdles in capitalizing on inventions, the hurdles that Woods faced were particularly high and repeated, though many appeared to have little or no relation to his race.

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Mirroring the experience of many inventors still today, Woods fell for the pitch of a sham invention promotion firm when first poised on the verge of success. In New York City, Woods came across an advertisement for the American Patent Agency, which was managed by an unscrupulous patent attorney, James Zerbe, and agreed to form a joint venture coordinated by Zerbe to capitalize on the invention. Though seemingly savvy, Zerbe stole Woods' inventions. Woods' only vindication was (in coordination with other victims of the firm) ultimately outsmarting and outmaneuvering Zerbe and succeeding in getting Zerbe criminally convicted of theft and disbarred.

As Fouche explained, "I do not think Zerbe attempted to steal Woods's inventions specifically because was black. Zerbe had quite a history of cheating anyone he could: white men, women, whomever. As far his business was concerned, he was an equal opportunity swindler."

Fouche also noted that race was a double-edged sword for Woods. Certainly, African-Americans faced great discrimination in America at that time, though Woods also appeared to capitalize on his race, when he found the opportunity, for example in generating sympathy in court against Zerbe and in attracting public interest and curiosity in his work, as prolific black inventors were not particularly common in America at that time.

Between the turn of the century and his death in 1910, Woods patented 22 inventions, many of which were assigned to General Electric and Westinghouse.

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Described as politically conservative, Lewis H. Latimer rejected as futile the efforts at that time to reassemble a black culture post-Reconstruction. Instead, Fouche reports that Latimer believed that the path forward was via assimilation into white culture. Lewis Latimer's father, George was an escaped slave from Virginia. His freedom was secured through the work and financing of white Boston-area abolitionists, and this history provided Lewis with a nuanced and complex attitude toward white society.

Latimer occasioned upon a fortuitous opportunity when he heard that the Boston patent firm of Crosby, Halstead & Gould was looking for "a colored boy with a taste for drawing" from an African-American woman who cleaned the firm's offices. The teen-aged Latimer landed that position and worked his way up, starting as office boy, becoming a drawing assistant and then securing the position of chief patent drawing draftsman when his predecessor left the firm; and he even drafted telephone drawings for a patent application from Alexander Graham Bell.

By his twenties, Latimer, himself was inventing, and he secured his first patent in 1874 for an "improvement in water-closet for railroad-cars." Latimer later left the Boston area to join his sister in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In Bridgeport, a chance interaction with Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine, left Maxim impressed with Latimer's talents; and Maximer hired Latimer as as draftsman for the United States Electric Lighting Company, which allowed Latimer to tap into the nascent market of electric lighting, and while there, he continued inventing improved lamp designs for the company; and by 1881 he was superintendent of the company's incandescent lamp department, supervising forty men.

After a challenging stint in finding new employment amid post-Reconstruction racial tensions, Latimer was later hired by Thomas Edison's "Edison Company," which later became General Electric, where Latimer became a member of the legal department and interacted on a personal level with Thomas Edison, himself, evidencing that Latimer was well-regarded and generally accepted within Edison's enterprise.

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Finally, Shelby J. Davidson was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1868 and graduated of Howard University (but not without having to win a contested dismissal proceeding brought by the university's board of trustees via his own skilled and shrewd legal arguments). Further study of the law, led Davidson to admission to the Kentucky bar and to the DC bar. Davidson then took a position with the United States Treasury Department's Post office Division, where Davidson invented adding machines to increase the division's efficiency and productivit by automating auditing procedures. Davidson used his inventive contributions to secure promotions and temporarily improve his standing within his division and to advance socially and culturally within the black community. Nevertheless, Davidson's rise within the Treasury Department halted and reversed after a dispute over the rights to Davidson's adding machines, leading to Davidson's resignation from government service in 1912. By that time, though, Davidson had already started a real estate business for colored people on the side, and he began a legal practice. Davidson was financially successful in these endeavors, and he rose to prominent leadership positions within the NAACP.

One of the conclusions I drew from these stories featuring an independent inventor, a corporate inventor and a government inventor, which perhaps should not at all be surprising, was that each of these early African-American inventors was more or less just like any other inventor--intellectually brilliant, creative, un-dissuadable and ambitious with a love of technological innovation. These motivations, for them, seemed far more prominent than any notions associated with race, notwithstanding the racial discrimination that each faced in various forms throughout their lives. None became particularly wealthy via their patents, though Latimer and Davidson became solidly middle-class via other endeavors.

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FAQs

What are the top 10 Black inventions? ›

Top 10 Inventions by Black Inventors
  • Clothes Dryer (1892) – George T. ...
  • Automatic Elevator Doors (1887) – Alexander Miles. ...
  • Folding Chairs (1889) – John Purdy. ...
  • Gas Heating Furnace (1919) – Alice H. ...
  • Golf Tee (1899) – George Grant. ...
  • Modern Toilet (1872) – Thomas Elkins. ...
  • Home Security Systems (1966) – Mary Van Brittan Brown.
3 Feb 2022

When were black people allowed to have patents? ›

The first known patent to a Black inventor was issued to Thomas Jennings in 1821 for a dry cleaning method. And the first known patent to a Black woman inventor was issued to Martha Jones in 1868 for an improved corn husker and sheller. (That was after the 13th and 14th amendments overturned Dredd Scott.)

Who is the greatest Black inventor? ›

George Washington Carver

Carver is famous for many inventions including a number of uses for the peanut.

Who was the first Black person to invent something? ›

Most historians agree that Thomas L. Jennings is the first African American patent holder in the United States. Jennings invented a way to dry-clean clothes in 1821.

Who was the first Black woman to invent something? ›

In 1885, Sarah Goode became the first African-American woman to file a patent.

Did a black man invent the roller coaster? ›

For inventor Granville T. Woods, it became the place where he demonstrated two of his famous inventions: an electric railway and an electric roller coaster called the Figure Eight.

Why are Black inventors not recognized? ›

Among these triumphs are the inventions black inventors have contributed, many of which were not recognized with a patent because the Patent Acts of 1793 and 1836 barred slaves from obtaining patents because they were not considered citizens.

What African American invented the toilet? ›

On December 19, 1899, J.B. Rhodes invented the water closet. Today, it is commonly known as the toilet or commode. Before this invention, many people were using outhouses.

What things were invented by Black people? ›

  • BLOOD BANK.
  • The Potato Chip.
  • George Crum.
  • Mailbox.
  • Philip B. Downing.
  • GAS MASK.
  • Garrett Morgan.
  • Folding Cabinet Bed.

Who was the first Black scientist in America? ›

1. George Washington Carver. Known for: Born into slavery, George Washington Carver became a foremost botanist, inventor and teacher.

Who are 5 African-American inventors? ›

Alexander Miles, Charles Richard Drew, Marie Van Brittan Brown, Shirley Ann Jackson, and Mark E. Dean. Our world would be very different if not for these 5 African-American inventors and their inventions.

Did a Black person invent the refrigerator? ›

Frederick McKinley Jones was a prolific early 20th century black inventor who helped to revolutionize both the cinema and refrigeration industries. Between 1919 and 1945 he patented more than sixty inventions in divergent fields with forty of those patents in refrigeration.

Who was the youngest black inventor? ›

Lewis Howard Latimer

Who is the only US president to invent and patent something? ›

He also remains to this day the only U.S. president to hold a patent in his name. Lincoln invented a “manner of buoying vessels” that was awarded U.S. patent number 6,469 on May 22, 1849 — 167 years ago this weekend.

Who was the first black woman billionaire? ›

Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) was “the first Black woman millionaire in America” and made her fortune thanks to her homemade line of hair care products for Black women.

Who is the first Black millionaire? ›

Madam C.J.

Walker (1867-1919), who started life as a Louisiana sharecropper born to formerly enslaved parents in 1867, is usually cited as the first Black millionaire.

Who was the first black woman millionaire? ›

Born in 19th century rural Louisiana to former slaves, Sarah Breedlove rose to become the first female African-American self-made millionaire in the United States. Known as Madam C.J. Walker, she developed a line of beauty care products for black women.

Did a black man invent the train? ›

Granville Tailer Woods (April 23, 1856 – January 30, 1910) was an American inventor who held more than 50 patents in the U.S. He was the first African American mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War. Self-taught, he concentrated most of his work on trains and streetcars.

Did a black man invent the rotary engine? ›

Andrew J.

Andrew Jackson Beard (1849–1921) was born into slavery in Alabama and gained his freedom when he was fifteen. He invented his own flour mill, a rotary steam engine, and two kinds of plows before he went to work for the railroad in the 1890s.

What did African invent? ›

As soon as anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa, they started creating things too. The fishing hook, bow and arrow, and even boats were first invented by Africans long before the advent of written history. Even as humans started migrating out of Africa, those remaining on the continent just kept on inventing.

What race has the most patents? ›

The Race Patent Gap

Among college graduates, African Americans and Hispanics hold nearly half as many patents as whites—about one percent each (7).

Did a Black man invent the air conditioner? ›

Although Willis Carrier is largely credited with inventing the modern air conditioner, Frederick Jones, an African-American, invented the first portable air conditioning unit.

How many Black patents are there? ›

With 50,000 total patents, Black people accounted for more inventions during this period than immigrants from every country except England and Germany.

What is WC in bathroom? ›

Definition of water closet

1 : a compartment or room with a toilet Confronted with the cramped confines of a bathroom in a typical starter home—one of those spaces aptly described by the term water closet—homeowners may well entertain grand plans for expansion.—

Who owns the patent for toilet paper? ›

Meet Seth Wheeler, the man with the practical potty patents.

This 1891 patent illustrates two of Seth Wheeler's most notable inventions: the toilet paper roll and the paper's perforation. OK, this may not technically be “Made in Saratoga,” but this Capital Region patent is just too good (and timely) not to bring up.

Who in invented the toilet? ›

The credit for inventing the flush toilet goes to Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I, who invented a water closet with a raised cistern and a small downpipe through which water ran to flush the waste in 1592.

What foods did Black people invent? ›

"Dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, pepper pot, the method of cooking greens — Hoppin' John (a dish made with greens and pork)," Kelley Deetz, director of programming at Stratford Hall, told VOA via email.

What did slaves invent? ›

Benjamin Montgomery, born into slavery in 1819, invented a steamboat propeller designed for shallow waters. This was a valuable invention as it facilitated the delivery of food and critical items. As per Johnson, “Montgomery tried to apply for a patent. The application was rejected due to his status as a slave.

Who was the first black female scientist? ›

Biochemist. Dr. Marie Daly was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry in the United States. After she earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Queens College in 1942, Daly completed her master's degree at New York University in only one year.

Who was the first black male scientist? ›

He was the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century.
...
George Washington Carver
Bornc. 1864 Diamond, Missouri, U.S.
DiedJanuary 5, 1943 (aged 78–79) Tuskegee, Alabama, U.S.
Resting placeTuskegee University
5 more rows

Who is the most famous black doctor? ›

James McCune Smith (1813-1865)

Smith is one of the most famous black doctors in history because he was the first Black American to earn a medical degree.

What is the name of the most prominent Black scientists of the early 20th century? ›

George Washington Carver – The most prominent African American scientist of the early 20th century. George Washington Carver was an American botanist and inventor, he actively promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion.

Did a Black man invent the cotton gin? ›

Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin in 1793. Suddenly we could turn a profit on this terribly labor-intensive crop. From then until the Civil War the slave population increased to the astonishing level of 4,000,000.

Did a Black man invent the telephone? ›

In the 1800s Alexander Graham Bell hired Lewis Latimer, a Black inventor and skilled patent illustrator. Latimer helped bring Bell's ideas to life, crafting the world's first patent drawings of the telephone.

Who created water guns? ›

Lonnie Johnson (inventor)
Lonnie Johnson
OccupationInventor, Engineer
Years active1978–Present
Known forSuper Soaker, Nerf gun
SpouseLinda Moore
4 more rows

Who was the first woman to invent something? ›

Mary Kies broke that pattern on May 5, 1809. She became the first woman to receive a U.S. patent for her method of weaving straw with silk. With her new method, Kies could make and sell beautiful hats such as this one, and, by law, no one else could sell hats just like hers. That's how a patent works.

What things Black people invented? ›

  • BLOOD BANK.
  • The Potato Chip.
  • George Crum.
  • Mailbox.
  • Philip B. Downing.
  • GAS MASK.
  • Garrett Morgan.
  • Folding Cabinet Bed.

What did African invent? ›

As soon as anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa, they started creating things too. The fishing hook, bow and arrow, and even boats were first invented by Africans long before the advent of written history. Even as humans started migrating out of Africa, those remaining on the continent just kept on inventing.

What foods did Black people invent? ›

"Dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, pepper pot, the method of cooking greens — Hoppin' John (a dish made with greens and pork)," Kelley Deetz, director of programming at Stratford Hall, told VOA via email.

What inventions originated in Africa? ›

These include steam engines, metal chisels and saws, copper and iron tools and weapons, nails, glue, carbon steel and bronze weapons and art (2, 7). Advances in Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago surpassed those of Europeans then and were astonishing to Europeans when they learned of them.

What did slaves invent? ›

Benjamin Montgomery, born into slavery in 1819, invented a steamboat propeller designed for shallow waters. This was a valuable invention as it facilitated the delivery of food and critical items. As per Johnson, “Montgomery tried to apply for a patent. The application was rejected due to his status as a slave.

Who was the first Black scientist in America? ›

1. George Washington Carver. Known for: Born into slavery, George Washington Carver became a foremost botanist, inventor and teacher.

Who discovered Africa? ›

Portuguese explorer Prince Henry, known as the Navigator, was the first European to methodically explore Africa and the oceanic route to the Indies.

What is Africa best known for? ›

It's brimming full of BIG things. As the second biggest continent in the world, Africa is jam-packed with some of the world's biggest things: The largest desert in the world, the Sahara Desert (explore it on our Morocco itineraries). The longest river in the world, the Nile River, runs for 6,853km (4,258mi).

What Africa has given the world? ›

Africa is home to the world's earliest known use of measuring and calculation. Africans were using algebra and geometry in daily life long before the rest of the world, who would later learn those skills in what we now know as traditional mathematics. The earliest numeric system on record stems from Egypt.

Who was the first black cook? ›

Edna Lewis was born in 1916 in Freetown, Orange County, Virginia. One of eight children, she lived with her family in a small community of emancipated slaves that her grandfather helped to create. Growing, foraging and harvesting their own food, most of the members of Freetown cultivated their own cooking ingredients.

What did West African eat before slavery? ›

Before slavery, in West Africa, our diet consisted heavily of plant-based foods such as ground provisions, fruits and greens. Meat was either not on the menu or eaten occasionally in smaller portions as a stew. They also consumed no dairy products.

Did a black man invent the air conditioner? ›

Although Willis Carrier is largely credited with inventing the modern air conditioner, Frederick Jones, an African-American, invented the first portable air conditioning unit.

What was the name of Africa before it was called Africa? ›

What was Africa called before Africa? The Kemetic or Alkebulan history of Afrika suggests that the ancient name of the continent was Alkebulan. The word Alkebu-Ian is the oldest and the only word of indigenous origin. Alkebulan meaning the garden of Eden or the mother of mankind.

What was Africa called in ancient times? ›

Alkebulan. According to experts that research the history of the African continent, the original ancient name of Africa was Alkebulan. This name translates to “mother of mankind,” or according to other sources, “the garden of Eden.” Alkebulan is an extremely old word, and its origins are indigenous.

What is the first known African civilization? ›

The first major civilization in Africa was Egypt, centered around the lush Nile River delta. Egyptian civilization truly began around 3150 BC when the ruler Menes unified the entire area into a kingdom.

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