Common Myths About Famous Black Inventors

Garrett Morgan, African American innovator. Public Domain

Quite a few of our readers have written asking me to clear up some facts about African American inventors in a sort of mythbuster manner. Much of the discussion has centered around who was the first person to invent a comb, elevator, cell phone, etc.

African American Patents

When an inventor files for a patent, the application form does not require a person to state his/her race. Thus little was known about early African American inventors. So librarians from one of the Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries decided to compile a database of patents granted to black inventors by researching patent applications and other records. These compilations include Henry Baker's Patents by Negroes [1834-1900]. Baker was a second assistant patent examiner at the USPTO who was dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the contributions of Black inventors.

The database listed the inventor's name followed by the patent number(s), which is the unique number assigned to an invention when a patent is issued, the date the patent was issued and the title of the invention. However, the database was misunderstood as readers falsely assumed that the title of the invention meant that the inventor had invented the first comb, elevator, cell phone and such. In the case of Henry Sampson, readers even misunderstood the title of gamma cell to mean Sampson had invented the first cell phone.

Black Myth or Black Fact?

This has led to writers publishing misleading articles that assume that every invention mentioned in the database would not have been invented if black people did not exist. Even worse are other writers who have written counterpoint articles that falsely give the impression that black inventors have not achieved great things.

Understand that titles are required by USPTO law to be as short and specific as possible. Nobody entitles their patent applications "The First Comb Invented" or "The 1,403th Comb Invented." You have to read the rest of the patent to find out what new improvements that the inventor is claiming.

And nearly all patents are for improvements to pre-existing items. Did you know that Thomas Edison, who was not the first person to invent a lightbulb, invented over fifty different lightbulbs?

Misleading the Public?

Not one of the black inventors lied in their patent applications or stated that they had invented something totally new when it was merely an improvement. However, I have read articles that imply that these inventors have done something terrible.

For example, take my article on John Lee Love. Nowhere do I state that John Lee Love invented the very first pencil sharpener, but the tone is favorable and shows the respect I have for Love as an inventor. Another website uses a headline that read "Pencil Sharpener - John Lee Love in 1897? No!" This harsh tone puts the inventor's achievements in a negative light. However, these were still real inventors who received real patents at a time when it was rare and difficult for a person of color to do so.

Why Recognizing Back Inventors Is Important

My database list of African American patent holders holds historical value far beyond winning the "first" race. It has led to research that answered many important questions. Questions such as:

  • Who were the first African Americans to receive a U.S. patents?
  • What were African American inventors inventing during the 19th and early 20th centuries?
  • Did early black inventors profit from their inventions?
  • What are contemporary African American scientists and inventors achieving today?

About Henry Baker

I believe wholeheartedly that inventors make the best people. And while I will continue to maintain the historical aspects of the database and update the database with current inventors, 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 (USPTO) who thankfully 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 Worlds Fair in Chicago and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta.

By the time of his death, Baker had compiled four massive volumes.