Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation
by Rayvon Fouche
Preparation for a course that I am teaching through the World Intellectual Property Organization for patent-drafting students in Africa drew my interest toward better understanding the experience and role of African-American inventors in the post-Reconstruction years following the American civil war. My interest was particularly piqued when, upon reviewing an early patent issued to prominent African-American inventor, Lewis Latimer, I saw that his home city was identified as Somerville, Massachusetts, which is where I live.
In Black Inventors, Fouche (a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) 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).
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.
The story of Granville T. Woods was particularly intriguing. Born in Australia in 1856, with mixed aboriginal, 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 a strong tie 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 popular myths, his myriad of inventions never brought him great wealth. While all inventors face significant hurdles in capitalizing on inventions, the hurdles that Woods faced were particularly high and repeated, including many that appeared to have little or no relation to his race.
Mirroring the experience of many inventors still today, Woods fell for the pitch of a sham invention promotion firm when he was 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 Woods seemed fairly 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, though not without missed opportunity for Woods to capitalize on his inventions.
As Fouche explained, "I do not thnk 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.
In his final decade 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.
Described by Fouche as being politically consertavive, Lewis H. Latimer reportedly rejected as futile the efforts at that time to reassemble a black culture post-Reconstruction. Instead, Fouche indicates 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 perspective on race relations.
As a teenager, 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. 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. His work included drafting the drawings for Alexander Graham Bell's patent application for the telephone.
By his twenties, Latimer, himself, was inventing. 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, where he landed a position as a 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, generating improved lamp designs for the company. 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.
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 productivity 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 (Woods), a corporate inventor (Latimer) and a government inventor (Davidson), 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 great inventor--intellectually brilliant, creative, un-dissuadable and ambitious with a love of technological innovation. These motivations, for Woods and Latimer, at least, 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.
Though this report just skims the surface of the profiles provided by Fouche, I applaud his efforts to shine an objective light on these early African-American inventors and to provide a deeper insight into their roles, experience and character. Through better understanding, we can hope to continue to knock down barriers and inspire others.