Black inventors add to the quality of life

Published 4:55 pm Friday, February 24, 2023

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To the Editor:

The history of patents in America is older than the U.S. Constitution, with several colonies granting patents years before the Constitution was created.

In 1787, however, members of the Constitutional Convention opened the patent process up to people nationwide by drafting what has come to be known as the Patent and Copyright Clause of the Constitution. It allows Congress: ‘To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.’” By the way, states no longer grant patents. (Shontavia Johnson, The Conversation: Smithsonian Magazine)

Shontavia Johnson, law professor and Patent attorney, reminded us that, though slaves could not secure property since they were not allowed to own property, many slaves still invented items, many of which we take for granted today. In any event, countless people rarely focus on the historical significance of patents, associated profits, and the contributions of Black inventors to the quality of life we enjoy today.

Black History Month is a good time–and throughout the year–to educate the masses about innumerable Black inventors over the course of hundreds of years. This piece highlights Benjamin Montgomery, Garrett Morgan, and George Washington Carver.

Montgomery, born into slavery, invented a steamboat propeller designed for shallow waters in the 1850s. The propeller dealt with the issues of delays from stuck vessels. Montgomery’s slave status prevented him from receiving a patent. His owners, who tried to take credit for the invention, were rejected as well. Ironically, after the Civil War, Montgomery became one of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi. His son, Isaiah, purchased more than 800 acres of land, founding the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi after his father’s death. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Morgan, born March 4, 1877 in Paris, Kentucky, became famous for inventing a smoke hood used in a 1916 tunnel construction disaster rescue. Interestingly, this respiratory device would provide the blueprint for WWI gas masks. A successful company followed his creation of hair products. Other Morgan inventions include an improved sewing machine and traffic signal. (Ohio History Central)

Carver, born a slave on a Missouri farm in 1865, became the first Black student and the first Black faculty member at what is now Iowa State University. He developed hundreds of products, including synthetic rubber, paper, plastics, all derived from the peanut. Moreover, Carver invented, from the soybean, a process for producing paints and stains, for which three separate patents were issued.

Additionally, Carver, at Tuskegee, developed his crop rotation method, which “alternated nitrate-producing legumes such as peanuts and corn with cotton, which depletes the soil of its nutrients. His innovations have been credited with the South’s economic survival in the early part of the 20th Century.” (USDA: “More than ‘The Peanut Man’”)

Keith Cooper