Wanted: Colored Inventors

Today’s blog post was written by Tina L. Ligon,  Supervisory 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.

Flyer for Colored 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.

4 thoughts on “Wanted: Colored Inventors

  1. I am inspired by the post “Wanted Colored Inventors” because it is a true American story for everyone.

    Ms. Ligon’s blog post is inspiring. I believe this is the essence of what working at the Archives is about; shining bright light on the actions of Americans who will continue to positively shape the country. Thank you for making us aware of a federal employee 100 years earlier who made a difference at his agency and around the world.

    In my opinion, this book and collection of records represents an outline of Americans and their pursuit of exclusive rights to their inventions when their personal rights were regularly ignored. Imagine, successfully matriculating through bias and the burden of pursuing intellectual property when less than 50 years earlier you were considered property in many states.

    I believe Mr. Baker’s purpose was similar to our own as NARA employees. He gathered evidence and documented the actions of brave Americans. These Americans had a pioneering determination to discover and package ingenuity for the benefit of the world while mired in unimaginable personal circumstances.

    This post inspires me to work hard but to be uncompromising in creativity and imagination and document it along the way.

  2. Fascinating discovery; next thing would be to find out if we have any of the patent drawings from the 1900 Paris exhibition in Cartographic.

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