How Black Inventors Contributed to Industrialization

Patent data reveals minority contributions during a time of explosive innovation

Inventions like the spinning jenny and the water wheel transformed the way goods were produced and energy was harnessed during the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. They played a major role in the radical transformations that occurred under industrialization, eventually boosting economic growth and lifting wages significantly in the west.

Innovations also played a key role in spurring economic growth during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. But who developed those inventions? In recent years, scholars have been reassessing the contributions of marginalized people and non-White communities—in particular, Black Americans—which haven't received their due. Using patent data from the 19th century, these scholars have brought to light Blacks' innovations and the impediments that they faced in putting them forward.

Key Takeaways

  • Innovations played a key role in spurring economic growth during the Industrial Revolution in the United States.
  • A Brookings Institution study of patents during the Golden Age of Invention, from 1870-1940, revealed that while Black Americans had limited participation in innovation because of repressive institutions, they contributed more patents than immigrants from all countries except Germany and England.
  • Research shows that Black inventors living in the American North had an eight-fold greater chance of getting a patent than those living in the South. In the North, their contribution to innovations was roughly on par with their share of the population.
  • Political inequality, violent repression, and a lack of opportunity explain the observed differences in patents for Black communities in the South versus in the North.

Early Industrialization

Historians place the beginning of the main thrust of the industrialization period in the United States around 1878, just after a depression period in the 1870s. Driven especially by the iron and steel industries, the United States grew rapidly at this time.

The relationship between innovation and marginalized communities in the early periods of industrialization in the U.S. is complicated, in part because the communities were denied access to education and property rights protections, such as those in the U.S. patent system.

Before the 13th Amendment ended slavery in 1865, educating slaves was often illegal and severely punished by slaveholders, who themselves were often illiterate.

Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, led to the establishment of public schooling, which gave many Blacks Americans their first shot at formal education. Schools set up by freedpersons and teachers from the North helped to create networks of self-sustaining schools. Southern states would eventually write public education into their constitutions.

However, just as the U.S. was entering the most explosive period of industrialization, Reconstruction came to an end. Corruption, political compromises, and a more conservative Republican party allowed former slaveowners to return to power in many places in the South. Acts of domestic terrorism against Black communities and other marginalized groups were common. Race massacres and riots, brutal lynchings, segregation, and racist laws deeply affected minority communities.

The Golden Age of Invention

The contributions of marginalized inventors, especially Black inventors, during the explosive period of growth known as the "Golden Age of Invention" (1870-1940) have not been properly emphasized in popular accounts, according to some scholars.

With the exception of George Washington Carver, who holds sway in the popular imagination for his “300 uses for peanuts,” Black inventors and their contributions are sometimes minimized or ignored, scholars argue. And even in Carver’s case, the majority of his work has been boxed out by interest in “things he probably shouldn’t be famous for,” causing an undervaluation of Carver’s contributions to the environmental movement and sustainability, among other topics, according to historian Mark Hersey of Mississippi State University.

The Importance of Patents

Patents, which predate the existence of the United States, are a critical aspect of the American system for cultivating innovation. Like many of the protections current during this period, the patent process was closed to slaves, who also were not allowed to own property.

Because of this, slaves were often unable to benefit or to get credit for their inventions. As an example, Benjamin Montgomery, who created a steamboat propeller that allowed for greater delivery of services and goods, was denied access to the patent system because he was a slave. And Kentucky-born Henry Boyd allowed his White partner to file a patent for his invention of the "Boyd Bedstead," a unique design for a bed frame, because he believed that as a former slave he couldn't file a patent.

A more recent analysis of patents and census data has allowed researchers to examine how marginalized communities contributed to the innovations that fueled industrialization in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, driving economic and social change.

Between 1870 and 1940, patents by residents of Washington, Maine, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, as well as those born in those states, were higher for Black inventors than for White inventors.

Increasing Diversity in Patents

A Brookings report, which examined a database comparing annual reports of the Commissioner of Patents to census data for the period between 1870 and 1940, found that—although most inventors were still overwhelmingly White and male—inventors were becoming increasingly diverse. 

The relative odds that inventors were women, for example, nearly doubled, from 0.07 in 1880 to 0.13 in 1940; essentially, women made up 3.5% to 6.5% of U.S. inventors. Similarly, the relative odds that non-Whites were inventors more than doubled, from 0.16 in 1880 to 0.34 in 1940. The share of foreign-born inventors increased too, and there was a shift in the nature of investors' occupations away from farm work and into more white-collar jobs.

Census and patent data show that, in the American South, Black inventors were shut out of the patent process. In the North, they had an eightfold greater chance of getting a patent than in the South. In the North, moreover, their contribution to innovations was roughly on par with their share of the population.

The fact that these levels were still marginal compared to patents granted to White inventors in the South can be ascribed to the absence of the rule of law in the post-Reconstruction period in the South, according to Michigan State University economist Lisa Cook. The lower levels of patents for the 1870-1940 period, Cook's research shows, were almost certainly the result of acts of domestic terrorism, killings, segregation laws, and other forms of repression. Cook has written that her findings reveal the effect of instability and violence on innovation. Patent productivity, she observes, is reduced by ethnic and political conflict.

Revolutionary Inventors

  • Elijah McCoy, who had 57 U.S. patents, invented a means of lubricating machines without stopping them, significantly reducing the threat to working people's limbs and also accelerating industrial progress.
  • Scientific progress also cropped up during this period. Ernest Just, for instance, played a hand in discoveries related to cytoplasm, although his contributions were relatively unknown until the 1980s, after his death.
  • Sarah Boone, the daughter of African Americans who escaped slavery in North Carolina via the Underground Railroad and settled in New Haven, Conn., received a patent in 1892 for inventing the ironing board.
  • Percy Julian, a biochemist, was important in synthesizing physostigmine as a treatment for glaucoma and cortisone as a treatment for arthritis.

After the Golden Age of Invention

Following this period, opportunities for minority innovators "stalled and even reversed," according to scholars.

Policies that increased segregation, such as restrictive zoning rules like redlining, and the emergence of professional associations like the American Bar Association and American Medical Association, weakened the opportunities for professional advancement in marginalized communities, making innovation more difficult. "In fact," concludes one study, "these gender and race gaps appear to be closing no faster today than they did between 1870 and 1940."

What Was the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution refers to the period when Great Britain and the United States moved from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Economic historians consider it a major point in understanding the development of world economic systems.

What Role Did Inventors Play During the Industrial Revolution?

Invention helped fuel the rapid and immense changes caused by industrialization. In the earlier phases of the industrial revolution, scholars argue, repressive institutions had all but prevented marginalized groups from participating meaningfully. However, patents and census data-informed analysis reveal that contributions from those groups increased from 1870-1940.

How Is Minority Representation Among Those Patenting Inventions Today?

Scholars who worked on a Brookings report have noted that "from the period after the end of the Civil War to the start of World War II, northern Black people were among the most inventive people in world history." But that period of invention appears not to have been sustained. Other researchers note a trend of underrepresentation among women and non-White inventors today.

Article Sources

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  14. Academic.oup.com. Laboratory Medicine. Bryan A. Wilson, Monte S. Willis. "Percy Lavon Julian: Pioneer of Medicinal Chemistry Synthesis." Accessed Jan. 14, 2022.

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