In the late 1800s, an effort to recognize pioneering Black inventors

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In the late 1800s, lawyer Henry Baker began a list of patents by Black inventors that included designs for an airplane, a pedal-powered snowmobile and a window squeegee

Patent drawing for velocipede filed Sept. 7, 1898 by Wesley Johnson of Pennsylvania. Patent granted June 20, 1899. (National Archives)

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On a moving train in the 1870s, the toilet bowl in the restroom was open to the tracks below, letting in gusts of air as well as dust and cinders from the roadbed.

“The annoyance,” wrote African American inventor Lewis H. Latimer and colleague Charles W. Brown, discouraged use of the bathroom “except under extreme circumstances.”

In 1874, they designed a mechanical toilet with a closed bottom. When the user was finished and lowered the seat lid, the bottom opened, discharged the contents and closed again.

The design netted a patent and landed on a list of inventions of that time by pioneering Black inventors, along with a flying machine, a pedal-powered snowmobile and an automated fishing reel that rang a gong when a fish took the bait.

On Friday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office held a program at Morgan State University on Black innovation that honored the list Henry E. Baker compiled in the late 1800s and early 1900s to prove that Black ingenuity was the equal of any.

Baker was an African American lawyer in the patent office in Washington who believed that invention drove the advance of civilization. But the role of Black inventors was largely unknown, he wrote in a book and essay on the subject.

Post-Civil War racial oppression was then near its peak. African Americans needed every fact in their favor “to offset … the many discreditable things that the daily papers are all too eager to publish against” them, Baker wrote in 1902.

And there was the “very widespread belief among those who ought to know better that the colored man has done absolutely nothing of value in the line of invention,” he wrote later. “It is incumbent upon our race … to let the world know the truth.”

James Howard, executive director of the Black Inventors Hall of Fame in Dover, N.J., said of Baker: “He knew that there was a need to advance the cause.”

“He felt that revealing our innovative prowess was one of the conduits for that,” he said. “I think it’s still needed, and the message is still being advanced.”

Compiling the list was not easy. Patents do not list the race of the inventor, the patent office says, and some Black inventors did not want their race known for fear it would doom their success, Baker wrote.

They may also have feared their ideas might be stolen, said Adia Burriss Coleman, head of Howard University’s business school library and manager of the school’s patent and trademark resource center.

“Black people traditionally have a fear … ‘Will [my concept] get stolen the minute I put it out there?’” she said.

Despite those challenges, in about 1886, Baker began writing to lawyers, businessmen and community leaders in search of Black inventors with patents.

Many correspondents never responded to Baker’s letters, acting patent office historian Rebekah Oakes wrote in an essay about the list. A lawyer from Tennessee wrote that he thought the project was “a joke.”

But Baker soon had 45 inventions on his list. By 1900, he had about 370. And by 1913, Baker said the list had grown to 800, Oakes wrote.

“He continued the research through the rest of his life,” she said in an interview.

“He died in 1928, and … even after he retired from the patent office, we have letters into the 1920s, so this is a decades long research project for him,” she said.

A resident of Columbia Heights, Baker was buried in Washington’s old Harmony Cemetery, where he wished to rest beside his wife, Violetta, according to official records and his obituary. Oakes said the couple had no children.

His list of patents on new inventions, or improvements on existing ones, included:

  • An 1899 “lifesaving” device for a speeding locomotive that used a net to scoop up someone lying on the tracks. The only injury would be “the shock resulting from being caught up suddenly by a rapidly moving train,” inventor James H. Robinson said in his patent application.
  • An 1894 casket-lowering device designed to place a casket in a grave without the “horror” of a mishap, Albert C. Richardson said in his application.
  • An 1899 “velocipede,” which resembled a modern bicycle but had four wheels for better stability. The device suited rookie cyclists and “those apt to become timid,” inventor Wesley Johnson wrote in his patent application.
  • An 1888 velocipede designed by Matthew A. Cherry that could transport three people and had an awning to keep off the rain.

Some Black inventors had numerous patents. Elijah McCoy of Ypsilanti, Mich., had at least 28. Many of them were designs for steam engine lubricators. But he also invented a foldable ironing board and a lawn sprinkler, according to Baker’s list.

Granville T. Woods was called the “Black Edison” — after Thomas Alva Edison — because of his many electrical inventions, Baker wrote.

Eugene Burkins invented an early machine gun that could fire a shot every four seconds.

Inventions of McCoy and Woods came into wide use, Oakes said. Both men have been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Jan E. Matzeliger’s shoemaking machine revolutionized the shoemaking industry, Baker wrote.

Woods invented an early communication system “that allowed trains when they were in motion to communicate with each other,” reducing accidents, Oakes said. McCoy’s inventions allowed a steam engine to be self-lubricating.

Latimer was the son of parents who had fled enslavement. His father, George, was arrested as a fugitive in Boston but was “purchased” and freed by abolitionists after a public outcry, according to historical accounts.

Latimer served in the Union Navy during the Civil War and later became an expert in the field of incandescent lighting and a close associate of Edison’s. (It’s not clear if Latimer’s mechanical railroad toilet caught on.)

Baby carriages, street sweepers, a lawn mower, a golf tee, a kite-shaped airplane, a clothes dryer, a potato digger, a corn planter, a cotton chopper and a desk that opened into a bed all made Baker’s list.

Black inventors “really have the pulse of what society is going through at the time,” Oakes said. “We see a lot of stuff in the field of transportation, a lot of domestic products.”

Alfred L. Cralle’s ice cream scoop from 1897 — still in use today — was one such invention. So were Anthony L. Lewis’s 1892 window washer, which looked like today’s gas station squeegee, and Lyda D. Newman’s novel hairbrush from 1898, which was designed to collect impurities and be taken apart and cleaned.

Black inventors were in every field, Oakes said.

“These inventors are looking to commercialize their products,” she said. “Whether or not they were all able to is a completely different story.”

“Baker knew, and we know today, that we don’t have a full accounting of Black innovation,” Oakes said. “There’s a lot of pieces that are missing to the story.”

In 1902, he wrote: “These inventions show how completely in error are those who constantly assert that the Negro has made no lasting contribution to the civilization of the age.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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