Today’s blog post was written by Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland
Most of what we know about African American inventors came from the research of Henry E. Baker. Born on September 1, 1857, in Columbia, Mississippi, Baker made it his mission to identify and publicly highlight the contributions of black inventors. RG 241 Records Relating to Colored Inventors (National Archives Identifier 7451732) contains letters, handwritten lists of inventors, and pamphlets regarding Baker’s attempt to collect information about black inventors.
Baker attended the Naval Academy where he was subjected to racial insults and physical violence at the hands of southern white students and staff. He withdrew prior to graduating because of the treatment at the school. Baker took a position at the US Patent Office in Washington, D. C. in 1877, as a copyist and continued to work his way up the ranks. In 1902, Baker was appointed as Second Assistant Patent Examiner. While at the US Patent Office, he noticed that there was a lack of knowledge and awareness about black inventors among his colleagues and the general public.
Baker collected the names of African American inventors, along with their patent numbers. He sent letters to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors, and black leaders asking them to list any African American inventors they knew. The lists were complied to help create Baker’s book The Colored Inventor: A Record of Fifty Years (1913).
The list of African American inventors allowed Baker to provide information that was used to select inventors who were showcased at national and international exhibitions. Several African American inventors participated in the Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Inventors, as well as artists, educators, and religious leaders displayed drawings, photographs, and artifacts that portrayed positive images of African American life to the world.
Many of the identified black inventors also demonstrated their inventions at the Pennsylvania Emancipation Exposition of 1913, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.