Black Myths or Black Facts

Are some patents worth more than others?

Walter Sammons patented an improved comb.
Walter Sammons patented an improved comb. USPTO

Quite a few of my readers have written to me asking me to discuss African American inventors in a sort of mythbuster style. To paraphrase one reader, would I point out any inaccuracies about black inventors, because statements from other websites had been cited in a discussion. The discussions have centered around who was the first person to invent a comb, elevator, cell phone, etc.

Background of Database

When an inventor files for a patent, the application form does not require a person to state his/her race.
Little was known about early African American inventors and 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, including Henry Baker's Patents by Negroes [1834-1900]. Henry 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, readers falsely assumed that the title of the invention meant that the inventor had invented the first comb, elevator, cell phone, etc. 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 coming up with controversial articles that assume that every invention mentioned in the database would not have been invented if black people did not exist. Other writers have produced counterpoint articles that falsely give the impression that black inventors have not achieved great things.

What's in a Name?

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 to combs etc. that the inventor is claiming.

99.999 percent of 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?

Editorial Tone

Not one of the black inventors lied in their patent applications, saying they had invented something totaly new when it was an improvement. However, I have read articles that imply with their tone, 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, however, the editorial tone is favorable and shows the respect I have for John Lee Love as an inventor. Another website uses a headline for example that reads "Pencil Sharpener - John Lee Love in 1897? No!" Giving an editorial tone that puts the inventor's achievements in a negative light. However, these were/are real inventors, who received real patents when it was rare and difficult for a person of color to do so.

What is Important

The 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. For example:
  • 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?

My Personal Bias

Inventors make the best people. 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 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.

Henry Baker recorded the replies and followed-up on leads. Henry Bakers 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, Henry Baker had compiled four massive volumes.

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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "Black Myths or Black Facts." ThoughtCo, Aug. 6, 2016, Bellis, Mary. (2016, August 6). Black Myths or Black Facts. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Black Myths or Black Facts." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 19, 2018).