In Closing Black History Month, a Celebration of African-American Inventors from USPTO


As February draws to a close, we at the Patent Law Practice Center wanted to share in the USPTO’s celebration of African-American inventors and their role in the history of the patent office. In USPTO Director David Kappos’ blog, Director’s Forum, offers a look at “the invaluable contributions African-Americans have made, and continue to make, to the success of the American Experiment…”

In the article entitled, “In Celebration of Black History”, Kappos discusses the first African-American inventors to receive patents,

Among those to whom we owe our nation’s success are a number of innovative African-Americans who distinguished themselves in the field of intellectual property, even before the American Civil War and Emancipation. Although slaves were prohibited from receiving patents on their inventions in the antebellum period, free black inventors were not. Thomas L. Jennings, born in 1791, was 30 when he received a patent for a dry-cleaning process, making him what historians believe was the first black inventor to receive a patent. Jennings’s income went mostly to his abolitionist activities, and in 1831 he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia.

Judy W. Reed patented a hand-operated machine for kneading and rolling dough. She was the first known African-American woman to obtain a patent. Granville T. Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and many more for controlling the flow of electricity. George Washington Carver developed about 100 products made from peanuts, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. Madame C. J. Walker and Marjorie Joyner revolutionized the hair care and cosmetics industry through their innovations.

Along with the hard-fought contributions African-American inventors have in the American culture of patents and innovation, a true testament to the celebration of Black History is the progress made with employment of African-Americans within the USPTO, past, present, and future. As stated in Kappos’ blog,

Since the 1830s, when Anthony Bowen became the first black patent clerk, thousands of African-Americans have served at the USPTO, including Henry Baker, an assistant patent examiner 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. Baker recorded the replies and his research provided the information used to select black inventions for exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta.

Today, approximately 22 percent of USPTO employees are African-American. Sometime this year the USPTO will cross an historic threshold, employing more than 1,000 African-American scientists and engineers.

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