📚 Black To School: Issue #14

Black Is Innovation: At Home With Black Inventors

Black Is Innovation

Welcome to issue #14! 💡

Happy Mother’s Day, I hope you all had a wonderful time honoring your mothers, aunties, grandmamas, sisters, and friends yesterday. At Black To School, we are grateful to be telling their stories of excellence, beauty, joy, and prosperity.

Black To School celebrates Black people and Black contributions around the world. The “Why?” that powers our mission is simple. “Our ancestors invented the table that the world now sits at. It’s time to not just claim our seat, but to set the agenda.”  

A special thanks 🙏🏾 to the “Golden Griots'' (or top sharers) below for spreading the word about last week’s issue on the first human controlled chemical reaction in the world. Please keep sharing stories of #blackcontributions and our collective history within your networks! 

  • Lydia F.

  • Kimberly P.

  • Michael M.

  • Marisha S.

  • Andree M.

In this issue, we’ll: 

  • Marvel at the inventions and Black inventors who have (re)defined our experience of home.

  • Look around; inspiration is everywhere. Let’s bring to bear what we know and tinker a little to contribute something new to the world. 

Patent Power

Contributor: Dr. Mark Ngu Awantang

Innovation is more than a notion. Beyond the idea, it requires an ability to design, develop, and document. And that’s all before one ever gets anything manufactured, sold, and in the hands of real people who can use and benefit from it. Patent laws were created in the United States in 1790 to promote the spirit of innovation by incentivizing inventors. In short, patents when granted, give inventors exclusivity to make money from their ideas for 14 to 20 years

There are high barriers to entry in the patent process. Besides having to pay thousands of dollars in filing fees and complete 2 to 3 months worth of research and paperwork, an applicant must prove that their invention is truly new and/or unique. As of 2019, 58% of all patent applications were approved, which has been steady since inception. 

Although overall patent approval rates haven’t changed much since the 19th century, access to participate in the patent process for Black inventors is a different matter. Because patents were only granted to citizens, enslaved people were barred from participating in the process. Before the Civil War, there are countless cases of white property owners unscrupulously patenting and profiting off of inventions created by Black people. 

Despite these early restrictions, Black inventors have always been prolific in contributing to the innovations that built America and established its leadership position in the Industrial era. Between 1870 and 1940, with 50,000 total patents, Black inventors held the largest block of patent awards over all other immigrant groups in America, which just two exceptions. 

Inventing Home 

The first Black person to receive a patent award was Thomas Jennings in 1821 for his innovative dry cleaning process. He was most certainly not the first Black inventor, but was the first to have his invention formally recognized and protected under the law. Although Thomas was born outside of the institution of slavery and ran his own business, the Black inventors that followed him came from all walks of life. They were enslaved or free, degreed or self-taught, drawing from African traditions/customs or responding to the demands of domestic service, wealthy or with limited means, women or men, young or old, married or single/widowed.

What united them was the spark of inspiration and boundless talent. They saw a need; imagined a solution; and then brought it to life. The innovations created by Black inventors have been all over the map. They range from railroad transportation improvements, life saving medical equipment and procedures to more efficient agricultural management systems and transformation of all things related to the home.

Black inventors have contributed so much to improving home life. Their residential innovations can be organized in four broad categories, including totally new or enhanced processes and/or designs:

  1. Home Maintenance: lawn mower, sprinkler system, gas masks, street sweeper, dust pan, wash bucket, mop with bucket, window cleaner squeegee, carpet cleaner, ladder, home security system, traffic light, car washing equipment

  2. Home Furniture & Equipment: wooden clock, bed frame, folding bed, HVAC system, radiator, cabinet bed, American flag, fireproof safe, umbrella stand, door stop, door knob, embossed photograph, convertible sofa, lamp holder, lamp lantern, electric lamp, lamp post, self-leveling table, hat rack and table, rocking chair, keyhole, door lock, file holder, folding chair, toilet bowl, baby carriage, curtain rod, fireplace, canopy, pillow sham

  3. Communication, Entertainment, & Art: piano, guitar, pool table, Almanac, telephone transmitter, hole puncher, precursor to fax machine and caller ID; bicycle frame, envelope seal, pencil sharpener, mailbox, SuperSoaker water gun, The Knockdown Wheeled Toy, typewriter, cell phone (Gamma electric cell)

  4. Food & Cooking: peanuts, cured bacon, double cooking range, ice cream scoop, icebox, food warmer, gridiron, kitchen table, egg beater, breadbox, kneading machine, bottle cap, spoon, spatula, oil heater/stove, rolling pin, fruit press, lemon squeezer, sugar refiner, refrigerator

  5. Personal Attire & Grooming: razor cleaner, clothes drier, dry cleaning, shoes, boots, ironing table, sanitary napkin, clothes line, hair brush, hair straightener, trouser stretcher

Halls of Innovation

Although the U.S. Patent office does not collect data on race as part of the application process, databases like this demonstrate that the Halls of Innovation are overflowing with Black inventors. They have shaped every aspect of the sacred place called home. 

Increasingly, Black inventors are also cracking the commercialization code and taken their products to market at scale like former NASA engineer turned multi-millionaire inventor, Lonnie Johnson and Percy Lavon Julian, a steroid chemist, who found a way to synthesize and cost-effectively mass produce cortisone and progesterone, which among other things is used to reduce miscarriages and is used in fertility treatment.

The space within the four walls that most people spend 69% of our time has served as a spectacular site for Black innovation. There is no better point of departure from which to continue to expand our creative reach and energy. Black inventions have forever improved the appearance and our experience of home.

🛠️ The Black To School Toolkit

Now What? Dig Deeper with Friends, Family, and Others.

  • Want to learn more about Black American inventors? Click here to watch this 18-minute video. Want more? Read the book Black Pioneers by Louis Haber and Black Inventors by Keith C. Holmes for great stories about how Black inventors changed our lives forever.

  • Curious about the Home 2.0 patent applications? Checkout this Black To School compiled spreadsheet with a work-in-progress list of popular Black inventions made for our homes. Let us know who and what we missed!

  • Ready to expose your kids to the joys of invention? Watch this video (all ages) about Black inventions and inventors that revolutionized our homes. Read this book with them (ages 5 to 12) Have You Thanked an Inventor Today?

  • Let’s go all in and invent something new! If you are a teacher, librarian, youth program manager, or Type-A parent, you can use this invention and patent process curriculum to educate, engage, and inspire the next generation of Black inventors.

⌛ The Black To School Timeline

Black Inventions Have Forever Improved the Appearance and Our Experience of Home.

  • Last week, we went back to Ancient times (1 Million Years Ago) The Thing: Chemistry of Fire, our ancestors controlled combustion and used it to reinvent the way we live and work, together.

  • This week, we return to the 19th Century (200 Years Ago) The Place: Home, the target location of countless inventions that expanded and delighted families around the world.

  • Next week, we move into the near Present (55 Years Ago) The Process: Computer Technology, much like fire, personal computing gave us “superpowers” to do things bigger, faster, and (in many cases) much better

About This Week’s Contributor

Dr. Mark Ngu Awantang

Dr. Mark Ngu Awantang is an Orthopedic Surgeon. He is a graduate of Washington College, Wright State University, Boonshoft School of Medicine, and completed his residency at Howard University.

He lives in Panama City, Florida with his wife, Dr. Nimae Awantang, and their 5 children. He was born in Cameroon and grew up in multiple African countries before going to college in the U.S., including Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Egypt. He enjoys sports and traveling. He loves learning about history, especially Black history.

I am a big fan of Black To School. Africa and the African Diaspora have a deep and rich history that we can all make better use of.