Race and Family Income Impacts Black American Inventor’s Patenting Activity

In a recent study, researchers at Michigan State University studied the patenting activity of Black American inventors. They found that compared with white inventors, African Americans were awarded six patents for every million people, compared with 235 for whites. The gap is a reflection of history. In 1857, the U.S. commissioner of patents decided that a slave’s invention could not be patented. In addition, applicants for patents had to swear allegiance to the United States. The Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling ruled out Black citizenship.

370 patents earned by Black inventors

In the past few decades, the number of Black American inventors has increased dramatically, and the list includes some well-known names. For example, in 1913, the U.S. Patent Office published a list of 370 Black American inventors, many of whom were black. This list includes inventors such as Jan Matzeliger, Elijah McCoy, and Granville T. Woods. The list was the product of an expanded search for Black inventors, which produced over 1,200 leads and 800 patents. The reason for the low patenting rate among Black inventors is unclear, but Baker notes that in some cases, the racial identity of the inventor was obscured in advertisements.

Jim Crow segregation had a cascading effect on Black inventors. They were systematically barred from attending mostly white universities and from being a part of professional engineering societies and mainstream banking. Consequently, generations of aspiring African American inventors sought technical training in historically black colleges and acquired capital through alternative means. In addition, they established professional organizations and networks, such as the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Black Girls Code (2011).

In recent years, scholars have produced a plethora of books documenting the remarkable achievements of Black inventors. They have compiled lists of patentees, biographical collections, and individual biographies of these pioneers. These lists and these biographies are definitive evidence of the ingenuity and innovation of Black people in the United States. In addition to these lists, many biographies are also available, from short illustrated books aimed at children to comprehensive critical books geared toward academics.

While it’s encouraging to find a Black American inventor with a plethora of patents, the lack of publicity they’ve received is an unfortunate reality. In some cases, these innovators’ contributions to the technological world are largely unrecognized. The number of patents awarded to Black inventors is extremely low compared to the number of patents granted to white inventors.

Challenges to obtaining a patent

Historically, African American inventors have faced many challenges obtaining patent protection. Their inventions have often been contested, and their patents may not be as valuable as white inventors’. However, the patent system is changing to reflect the changing face of the United States. Today, it is easier for black inventors to obtain patent protection for their innovations than ever before. But there are still many barriers that black inventors face.

The differences between the number of patents for Black inventors in the North and the South may be due to political inequality and violent repression. In the 19th century, repressive laws and institutions often denied marginalized groups equal access to education, property rights protection, and patent applications. However, recent analysis of patents has allowed researchers to explore how marginalized communities contributed to industrialization and change.

Despite the challenges, Black inventors persisted and were often successful. Thomas Jennings, for example, was the first Black American to receive a patent in 1821 for his dry cleaning method. His patent has subsequently become an international standard and the first black woman to receive a software patent. As a result of his perseverance, black inventors have continued to develop and innovate for decades.

One of the challenges that black American inventors face when trying to obtain a patent is their lack of resources. Many of these innovators were not able to afford the expensive patent fees. Additionally, they were often denied the necessary funding to perfect their technology. As a result, it is difficult for these individuals to get the recognition they deserve. However, their hard work and determination has helped millions of people improve their lives.

Workplace climate

While the patenting activity of African Americans is lower than that of whites, there are important differences across the states. For example, in the northern states, patenting rates are higher for Black people than for whites. This pattern is consistent with learning and practice opportunity effects. Using the state of birth and residence, patenting rates were significantly higher for Blacks in these states. Overall, these differences are important for the advancement of the innovation ecosystem.

In the north, Black residents filed more patents per capita than their white counterparts. However, this disparity between Black and white inventors was hardly statistically significant. The reason was that African Americans in the north had almost as much access to resources as their white counterparts. The southern-based states were even less favorable for invention, perhaps due to the lack of practice opportunities. So, while the research indicates that systemic racism and economic disadvantages do affect patenting activity, it is unclear how the racial makeup of the country can affect the outcome.

The results of this study suggest that the racial climate in the country is a factor in determining the likelihood of African American inventors. The researchers estimate that white children are more likely than black children to become inventors, whereas Latinx and black children are less likely to pursue innovation. Further, the researchers found that white children are much more likely to become scientists than black or Hispanic children.

The early 1900s witnessed a boom in Black patenting activity. In the same period, the patenting rates of African Americans peaked, and then declined. After the end of Reconstruction, however, Black inventors’ patenting rates did not recover. This period was marked by the onset of the Jim Crow era, characterized by lynchings and other forms of racist violence. Moreover, Black inventors hid their racial identities.

Eurocentric notions of invention vs Afrocentric notions of invention

The lack of access to the patent system has a history that dates back to the 18th century, when large swaths of the African American population were not recognized as citizens of the United States and unable to obtain a patent for their creations. This situation was further exacerbated by the 1857 Dred Scott ruling, which declared that Black Americans were not U.S. citizens, preventing them from patenting their inventions. Shontavia Johnson, a patent attorney, entrepreneur, and associate vice president of innovation at Clemson University, explores the historical context of Black inventors’ exclusion from the patent system.

Throughout American history, African-Americans have shown remarkable inventiveness. This is especially true of the antebellum period, when black people were forced to become skilled craftsmen and subsequently became a source of great wealth. Consequently, Black vernacular technological creativity is often overlooked in our modern world. Nevertheless, Black people have contributed to the advancement of technology in numerous fields, from manufacturing to agriculture.

The lack of exposure to African-American inventors perpetuates the vicious cycle. Research shows that children who see inventors as role models become more likely to become innovators themselves. Consequently, girls and other underrepresented minorities may become the next “lost Einsteins.” Such inequities are both morally and practically objectionable. While these inequities are not directly relevant, they do have a significant economic impact. More than 800 patents produced annually by Black inventors are in fact more profitable if they work in teams that are both racially and gender diverse.

In the 19th century, most inventions that were submitted to the Patent Office were minor improvements of everyday devices. Rural people, for example, patented butter churns, washing machines, and farming tools. Although most inventions were minor changes to workday devices, this trend suggests that African-Americans also demonstrated creativeness in improving these everyday items.

Inventor’s reparations package

Lisa D. Cook, an economist at Michigan State University, studied the relationship between race and patenting activity and found that Black inventors’ per-capita patenting rates peaked in 1899. Then, they declined precipitously and never recovered. The end of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, which marked lynchings and other racist violence, further suppressed the rate of Black patenting. The study also found that patent activity by Black inventors was higher during the period when the rule of law was still in place, when they were better educated, and were better connected.

While white Americans had higher patenting rates than Black inventors in the North, Black inventors in the South were only three times more likely to have their inventions patented. Although the regional difference was not significant, it was still substantial enough to illustrate the persistent disadvantages faced by Black Americans in gaining access to the patent system. Even today, Black inventors remain underrepresented among patent applicants and grantes, despite having the potential to create some of the most important and beneficial inventions in the world.

The history of race and patenting in the United States is littered with injustices. For instance, the Confederate states allowed the patenting of slave inventions. Jefferson Davis even tried to patent a propeller invented by a man who was enslaved. Despite these historical obstacles, many Black inventors contributed significantly to American economic and technological development. In the North, Black people acquired cutting-edge technical skills and scientific creativity at a high rate.

In contrast, Black vernacular technological creativity did not conform to Eurocentric definitions of ingenuity. White antebellum inventors often defined an invention as a mechanical device designed to replace human labor or improve a process. Black vernacular technologies, by contrast, did not qualify under such narrow definition. It was important to note that Black inventors did not become household names until much later.


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