In Celebration of Black History
Blog by Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO David Kappos
Every year, Black History Month provides a golden opportunity for employees of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to remember and honor the invaluable contributions African-Americans have made, and continue to make, to the success of the American Experiment—the proposition, to use President Lincoln’s famous words, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Among those to whom we owe our nation’s success are a number of innovative African-Americans who distinguished themselves in the field of intellectual property, even before the American Civil War and Emancipation. Although slaves were prohibited from receiving patents on their inventions in the antebellum period, free black inventors were not. Thomas L. Jennings, born in 1791, was 30 when he received a patent for a dry-cleaning process, making him what historians believe was the first black inventor to receive a patent. Jennings’s income went mostly to his abolitionist activities, and in 1831 he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia.
Judy W. Reed patented a hand-operated machine for kneading and rolling dough. She was the first known African-American woman to obtain a patent. Granville T. Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and many more for controlling the flow of electricity. George Washington Carver developed about 100 products made from peanuts, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. Madame C. J. Walker and Marjorie Joyner revolutionized the hair care and cosmetics industry through their innovations.
Since the 1830s, when Anthony Bowen became the first black patent clerk, thousands of African-Americans have served at the USPTO, including Henry Baker, an assistant patent examiner who was dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the contributions of black inventors. Around 1900, the patent office conducted a survey to gather information about black inventors and their inventions. Letters were sent to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors, and prominent African-Americans. Baker recorded the replies and his research provided the information used to select black inventions for exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta.
Today, approximately 22 percent of USPTO employees are African-American. Sometime this year the USPTO will cross an historic threshold, employing more than 1,000 African-American scientists and engineers.
One of these truly exceptional employees is Patricia Carter Sluby: a freelance writer, registered patent agent, lecturer, past president of the National Intellectual Property Law Association, and a former primary patent examiner. She received a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Virginia Union University, pursued graduate studies at Fisk and American universities, and worked as a chemist at the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey before becoming a patent examiner in the fields of chemistry and chemical engineering. From 1979 to 1980, while Patricia was a Science and Technology Fellow for the Commerce Department, she drafted a bill (H.R. 6735) on the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Domestic Monetary Policy Subcommittee. She was also a technical advisor on the independent film, From Dreams to Reality: A Tribute to Minority Inventors, and has received numerous awards, including the Norbert Rillieux Presidential Award from the National Patent Law Association, the Employee of the Year award from the Commerce Department for her outstanding contributions to Minority Enterprise, the USPTO’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award, and the Bronze Medal Award for superior government service.
As a primary patent examiner, Patricia was surprised to learn of the contributions and improvements that African-American inventions have made in every field of endeavor, and of their ubiquitous impact on our way of life. Her books—The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity and Creativity and Inventions: The Genius of Afro-Americans and Women in the United States and Their Patents—chronicle these accomplishments and pay homage to the inventive spirit, creativity, and entrepreneurship of countless African-Americans.
Last Thursday, thanks to the superb efforts of the USPTO's Black History Month Planning Committee, our staff celebrated the achievements of remarkable African-American women like Madame C.J. Walker, Zora Neal Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bessie Coleman and, of course, Rosa Parks, all of whom played such an immensely important role in American history and culture. Innovation and greatness cannot happen without a firm and principled commitment to diversity and opportunity—a self-evident truth for the USPTO, as well as our nation.