The Real McCoy, African-American Invention and Innovation, 1619-1930

In South Carolina an archaeologist bends over the shallow indentation that she has carved out of the earth. She carefully extracts a fragment of seventeenth-century pottery from its clay bed. A fine mist begins to fall. Stretching a canvas tarpaulin over the excavation, she climbs to the surface above to examine the potter.

In Boston a historian sits in a windowless room peering into a microfilm reader as document after document appears on the lighted screen. He squints his eyes in an attempt to read an obscure handwritten eighteenth-century document -- a 1784 inventory of estate of a free black tool maker. He discovers that the tool maker Caesar Caller left an estate valued at about 77 pounds including a library valued at 23 shillings. Satisfied the historian turns off the machine and goes home to ponder the significance of this information.

Both the historian and the archeologist are searching for information on early African-Americans: how they lived, how they worked, and what they thought of themselves and the world around them. Archaeologists like the woman in South Carolina and historians like the man in Boston are among the different kinds of people who are involved in the search for clues to this early history. As archaeologist Theresa Singleton describes it all are involved in the search for buried treasure.

The technology of early African Americans is of particular interest to researchers. They are just beginning to uncover some of its elements and to understand some of the ways in which it contributed to the development of the wider American technology. It is impossible to discuss all of the different areas in which African-American traditions have made an impact on the emerging technology. Often such contributions went largely unremarked and unrecorded.

The earliest AfricanAmerican craftsmen and women, those of the seventeenth century left no written records of their own. Historians archaeologists and anthropologists study the objects made and used by African Americans to tell us something of the ways in which skills were learned and passed on. Objects such as pots, baskets, pipes, and boats, even the buried remnants of houses and other buildings can help us understand how things were made. They also look at such documents as tax records and bills of sale, letters, newspapers, and legislation to give us more information about how these African-Americans lived and worked.

We know more about blacks in the 1700s, particularly about outstanding ones such as Benjamin Banneker, Richard Allen, and Jupiter Hammon. The mid-1700s saw a wave of experimentation and innovation sweeping the Colonies. Though blacks contributed to the technological development that resulted, there was little public recognition of their achievements. Thus, much of the struggle of outstanding Blacks of the era revolved around the battle to assert themselves upon the national consciousness.

The enactment of the U.S. Patent Act in 1790led to some records of black inventors and their inventions. But this documentation is incomplete. Though free black inventors were legally able to receive letters of patent before the Civil War, very few actually received them. Slaves were legally prohibited from receiving letters of patent for their inventions; and there are few surviving accounts in which slave inventors are fully identified.

Emancipation brought more recognition to black inventors. After the Civil War, significant numbers of black inventors began to patent their inventions. These inventions served as a source of personal pride, achievement, and spiritual "uplift" for the race, and, not insignificantly, they brought financial security to many patent-holders. Like the vast majority of other inventors, most nineteenth-century blacks patented inventions that, though not revolutionary in their impact, added to the existing knowledge and made later, path-breaking innovations possible. (Interestingly enough, those few inventors whose innovations can be argued to have made an immediate impact - such as Norbert Rillieux, Lewis Temple, Jan Matzeliger, and Elijah McCoy - most often seem not to have fully enjoyed the benefits of their inventions, whether due to untimely death or to lack of capital.)

For the most part, early inventors worked alone or perhaps with a partner or two. Their expertise derived primarily from their familiarity with problems encountered in the course of their own work, and a practical, working knowledge of the technology involved. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the profile of the successful inventor began to change. Many inventors became entrepreneurs, spending as much or more energy on marketing, promotion, and distribution as they did on inventing and manufacturing them.

The rise of twentieth-century corporate enterprise also led to more centralized research. Large companies quickly saw the advantage of having salaried research and design personnel available and of having patents developed by staff inventors. As technology became more complicated inventors in emerging fields began to seek more formal education Advanced degrees in engineering and the sciences were necessary to participate in these new technologies. Blacks,however, found it difficult to get access to higher education and difficult to obtain research staff positions.

Despite all of these changes many inventions are still patented by inventors who work alone - individuals who are suddenly struck by a solution to a daily problem or individuals who laboriously work out an innovative solution or a cheaper means of producing something. Even loday the role of the individual inventor remains an essential one.

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