More Than Machines

Black inventors deserve better than just a list of their inventions

3 min read

Every February, which is Black History Month in the United States, the IEEE History Center is approached by journalists, educators, and others for the names and inventions of African-American engineers. As he explains in Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation, Rayvon Fouché, a scholar of African-American cultural and intellectual history, is no stranger to this phenomenon.

The problem confronting the scholar asked to provide examples of black inventiveness is twofold. Blacks are clearly underrepresented in narratives of American technological history, in part because of the biases of earlier historians. But another reason is that there are few black inventors in the field of engineering--or many other professional roles--because of the cultural, social, political, and economic constraints placed upon them.

Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation

Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer and Shelby J. Davidson; By Rayvon Fouché; Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003, 225 pp., US $35, ISBN 0-8018-7319-3

The historian must walk a tightrope. To simply present history without elaboration risks denying today's African-Americans knowledge of important potential role models. But overemphasizing the role of African-American inventors runs the risk of distorting the history of technology and, ironically, of obscuring the very injustices that were responsible for the paucity of black inventors in the first place.

For Fouché, the danger of writing blacks out of American technological history outweighs the risks that result from recovering these inventors from the mists of history. But he is concerned that in the recovery of these African-American inventors, they will lose their humanity, being reduced to their inventions, to the detriment both of the history of technology and of African-American history.

To explore how black inventors negotiated the "difficult American racial terrain," Fouché examines the lives of three important black inventors in full historical detail, focusing on their roles as actors in history--as inventors and as people, as blacks and as Americans. Doing so enables him to highlight their triumphs and contributions without losing sight of their humanity or of the obstacles they faced.

As his subjects, Fouché has chosen three electrical inventors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Electrical technology turned out to be the fundamental technology of the 20th century, transforming American society and setting the stage for the 21st century. The white engineers of that time and medium--such as Bell, Edison, and Tesla--have become paragons of the inventor. Fouché's choices--Granville T. Woods (1856-1910), Lewis H. Latimer (1848-1928), and Shelby J. Davidson (1868-1930)--were also important inventors, although each operated in a different milieu.

Woods, who worked independently, was best known for inventing an overhead power system for electric trains. Latimer was employed by a series of large corporations, culminating his career at Edison General Electric, where he invented a process for manufacturing carbon filaments that was vital for the widespread adoption of light bulbs. And Davidson held a government post and was noted for his improvements to adding machines and other office equipment. This variety of occupations enables Fouché to explore the range of social, economic, and political forces at play.

FouchÉ'S Meticulously Researched and well-written book is organized essentially as three separate biographies. Because none of these inventors have yet been given the full biographical treatment they deserve elsewhere, this volume may serve as the best secondary source on them for some time. Fouché emphasizes the special qualities of these men and the contributions they made to society. He makes little effort to compare and contrast the inventors within their individual biographies--that is confined to the introduction and brief conclusion. Some readers may be disappointed that Fouché did not try harder to draw broad conclusions, but that would have been exactly the opposite of his intent.

There is, however, one common area that could have been explored further: the role of the U.S. Patent Office in the history of African-American technology. Each of Fouché's inventors seems to have spent much more time prosecuting and defending patents than on his inventions. Sometimes they failed; more often they succeeded. Throughout these narratives, as racial problems throw up all sorts of barricades, the Patent Office seems, to this reader, to step in as a fair and impartial arbiter. Fouché himself draws attention to this when he opens his first chapter with a 1902 epigraph from Henry E. Baker, identified as "the first African-American patent examiner." This means that all three inventors did most of their important legal defense before an audience that was completely white. I would have liked to learn more about the implications of this fact.

This point does not, however, detract from the importance of this readable, interesting, and highly recommended work. Fouché is to be commended for reuniting the humanity of a neglected group of inventors with their better-known inventions.

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