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Black Inventors Create Objects for Daily Use


The folding chair, gas mask, traffic signal, automatic elevator doors, potato chips and the Super Super child's water gun were all invented by Black innovators.
Black Inventors Create Objects for Daily Use
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There is a need to tell the stories of Black creators and inventors. Everyday objects have been created by Black inventors throughout America’s history. These objects have not only helped with everyday life, but have helped whole communities.

Many everyday objects and services that Americans use such as traffic lights, elevator doors that open immediately, color screens for computers and other items, were created by Black men and women.

The creators of those inventions have been recognized for their creations. There are, however, many Black inventors whose ideas and creations are not known to Americans.

Shontavia Johnson is a lawyer, business woman and an associate vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation at Clemson University in South Carolina. She says that there were a few examples of Black inventors competing with well-known white inventors, like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. The Black inventor’s ideas were just as life-changing, but they could not get the money to help their inventions.

“They did not have access to all these different systems that the United States puts in place to support inventors,” said Johnson.

Many Black inventors also improved basic designs and inventions credited to white inventors. Lewis Latimer was the son of slaves. He created a wire that extends the life of a lightbulb so that it would not die after just a couple of days.

Latimer received a patent for his creation in 1882, but many generations of Black inventors before him could not receive a patent.

New research suggests this is what happened with the cotton gin, a device that splits cotton seeds from the fibers. The idea was mostly created by slaves, but Eli Whitney, a white man, received the patent for it.

A model of a 19th-century cotton gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, Connecticut.
A model of a 19th-century cotton gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, Connecticut.

After slavery ended in 1865, Black citizens could get a patent.

Johnson said that we think of the United States as being a place for business and invention, but there is a whole group of people who are dismissed by the patent system. Their inventions and ideas are used by others who are typically white and male.

The banning of Black inventors from the patent system was based in racist beliefs of the superior intelligence of white people, said Rayvon Fouché. He is a professor of American studies at Purdue University in the American state of Indiana. He is also the leader of the Social and Economic Sciences Division at the National Science Foundation.

“The inherent understanding of what an inventor is and was and could be — the framing of that term — eliminated the possibility for all Black folks and all marginalized people,” he said.

Black inventors were historically barred from having equal access to education, professional scientific and engineering groups, and financial systems for money to start advertising their inventions. Between 1870 and 1940, patent activities slowed for Black inventors due to racial violence in the segregated southern United States.

There were also Black creators who came up with new designs that did not fit the traditional idea of an invention. These traditional ideas were the white, European standards for invention. That kept certain designs and ideas by Black people from being accepted by the patent system.

Eric Hintz is a historian with the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“…Often, the traditional definition of ‘invention’ is something like a machine that saves human labor or animal labor, that does some task more efficiently,” he said.

Johnson explained that the patent system model is built around the idea that inventions should make money. If the invention is helping a community survive or it is not as profitable, it is not worth protecting that idea. It is written in the law.

“There are certain types of things that are patentable, and certain things that are not patentable, and that there is a distinction that I do think leaves a lot of people out of the ecosystem,” says Johnson.

For example, Grandmaster Flash is a musician from New York who championed record turntables as a musical instrument by using his fingers to control the sound. He had a style that blended beats that later became an art form. He does not have any patents on this style.

FILE - Hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash speaks at a ceremony where he is inducted into Guitar Center's RockWalk in Los Angeles, March 6, 2014.
FILE - Hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash speaks at a ceremony where he is inducted into Guitar Center's RockWalk in Los Angeles, March 6, 2014.

“The patent office is driven by techno-scientific innovation. And I think part of it is, for me, to open up the conversation of what inventiveness is and can be,” Fouché said.

Throughout recent history, museum collections have also not included the work of non-white people or women. The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center willingly admits the failure.

Hintz states that The Smithsonian has a lot of items from white inventors like Edison, Tesla and even Steve Jobs, but they are now making sure that they are protecting the stories of Black creators such as Grandmaster Flash, and Patricia Bath, an eye doctor who invented a way to remove cataracts.

Dr. Patricia Bath, seen here at her Los Angeles home in 1994, invented a new device and technique for cataract surgery. (Photo NIH)
Dr. Patricia Bath, seen here at her Los Angeles home in 1994, invented a new device and technique for cataract surgery. (Photo NIH)

Black people have invented so many items that we use in our everyday lives, everything from the present-day toilet to peanut butter. The gap in innovation, however, remains. African Americans and women still take part at each stage of the innovation process at lower rates than white males.

“How do you get more Black kids, girls [and] marginalized people into these pathways that have been traditionally white, middle class and male?” Fouché says, expressing the importance of building children’s imaginations.

“Don't limit the possibilities,” he said.

I’m Faith Pirlo.

Dora Mekouar reported this story for VOA News. Faith Pirlo adapted it for Learning English.

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Words in This Story

entrepreneurshipn. the state of setting up businesses

innovation n. new ideas and ways of doing something

access n. having entry or admission to something

credited v. assigning and giving responsibility and acknowledgement to

patent n. a legal right for an item to be invented, owned, or used by someone

segregation n. the state or act of dividing people, especially by skin color in the United States prior to 1964

task n. a job or an assignment to be done

distinction n. a difference that sets something apart from other things

marginalized adj. to be treated and feel unimportant and alone

cataracts n. the blurring of the lens in the eye, which is normally clear

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