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Researching Patents of African American Inventors

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Henry E. Baker., Digital ID 1235124, New York Public LibraryHenry E. Baker, author of The Colored InventorIn recognition of Black History Month, I thought I would take this opportunity to suggest U.S. Patents as an available primary resource that can be used to do historical and biographical research on African American Inventors.

NYPL has a strong collection of resources on African American inventors, both in our research collections (Schomburg and SIBL) as well in our branch system's circulating collections. Two that would be of paticular interest to readers interested in patents are the 1913 book by patent examiner Henry E. Baker (pictured here), The Colored Inventor: A Record of Fifty Years, and a more recent volume by former patent examiner, later a Registered Patent Agent, Patricia Carter Slurby, Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity (also available in our circulating collection).

These and other secondary sources can provide us with information about names and biographical information for African American inventors, many of whom received patents. And from that information, we can try to locate copies of their patents. For example, using a SIBL Resource Guide from 2007, we can find the name of Thomas Jennings, the first African American to hold a U.S. patent. In one of our patent indexes, List of Patents 1790-1847, we can find the entry on page 69 for Thomas L. Jennings of New York, and his patent for "Cloth, scouring" issued March 3, 1821 (sadly, as with most of the patents issued during the first four decades after 1790, there does not appear to be a copy of this early unnumbered patent available anymore).

Now, here I'd like to suggest a resource that can help identify patents by African Americans, as a way to find African American inventors by the place and time that they lived. One of my colleagues from the Patent and Trademark Depository Library Association (PTDLA), Margaret J. Collins (recently retired from the Illinois State Library), created a downloadable excel spreadsheet: Black Inventors by State or Country of Residence, 1834-2008. Using this, with a little inspection of columns, I was able to find the earliest patent in the New York section, one for an improvement in shoe construction by William A. Dietz of Albany, New York; patent number 64,205 issued April 30, 1867.

So, while I'm not assigning any homework here, perhaps someone looking for a Black History Month project may want to give Ms. Collins' listings a try.

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