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Smithsonian Magazine

Of avatars and inventors

National Museum of American History

A Conversation with Internet Inventors

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Join us for a conversation with Steve Crocker and Vinton Cerf, two of the Internet's founding fathers. Crocker established protocols necessary for the workings of the Internet, and Cerf, a computer scientist, was instrumental in the development of the first commercial email system. They will discuss how the Internet changed the way we communicate.

Black Americans; Black American Inventors

National Museum of American History

First Meeting of the National Inventors Council

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Participants in the first meeting of the National Inventors Council, August 6, 1940. Standing left to right: Dr. Fin Sparre (1879-1944), Director of Research, Du Pont Corporation; Dr. Webster N. Jones, Dean of Engineering, Carnegie Institute of Technology; Frederick Morris Feiker (1881-1967), Dean, George Washington University School of Engineering; patent attorney Lawrence Langner (1890-1962); Watson Davis (1896-1967), Director of Science Service. Seated left to right: Frederick Morrell Zeder, vice-president, Chrysler Corporation; Conway P. Coe, U.S. Patent Commissioner; Dr. Charles Franklin Kettering (Chairman of Council), President, General Motors Research Corporation; Dr. Thomas Midgley (1889-1944), vice-president, Ethyl Gasoline Corporation; Dr. William David Coolidge, Director of General Electric Research Laboratories.

Visit the Homes of America's Greatest Inventors

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s hard to predict where inspiration will strike, but studies have shown there’s a relationship between location and ideas—at least insofar as relaxing places, like the shower, tend to make you more creative than the boardroom. Is it any wonder that Alexander Graham Bell came up with his idea for the telephone in the beautiful dale near his family’s home that he called his “dreaming place?”

While it’s possible you might not come up with any world-changing ideas while visiting the homes of America’s greatest inventors, there’s a special feeling to be found looking at the places where they ate, slept, worked—and most importantly—imagined. Lucky for us, many of the homes of the nation’s most prolific scientific and technical geniuses have been preserved for the public. (Not all are located in the United States, however—“American” here refers to citizenship alone, and many inventors traveled). These are places filled with both everyday and technical artifacts that tell the larger stories behind inventions that changed the world.

At the newly opened Innovation Wing of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, visitors can explore the workstation of video game inventor Ralph Baer. The museum recreated Baer’s office, placing every book, tool, microchip and doodad in the same spot it was located in his Manchester, New Hampshire, home. But for many other inventors, you can see workshops and other spots of inspiration in their original locales. Here is just a sampling: 

Independent inventors, hidden in plain sight

National Museum of American History

20c American Inventors block of four

National Postal Museum

Inventors on "Not for Women Only" from 1975

Lemelson Center, National Museum of American History
Episode clips from "Not for Women Only." April, 1975.

With Patents or Without, Black Inventors Reshaped American Industry

Smithsonian Magazine

America has long been the land of innovation. More than 13,000 years ago, the Clovis people created what many call the “first American invention” – a stone tool used primarily to hunt large game. This spirit of American creativity has persisted through the millennia, through the first American patent granted in 1641 and on to today.

One group of prolific innovators, however, has been largely ignored by history: black inventors born or forced into American slavery. Though U.S. patent law was created with color-blind language to foster innovation, the patent system consistently excluded these inventors from recognition.

As a law professor and a licensed patent attorney, I understand both the importance of protecting inventions and the negative impact of being unable to use the law to do so. But despite patents being largely out of reach to them throughout early U.S. history, both slaves and free African-Americans did invent and innovate.

Why patents matter

In many countries around the world, innovation is fostered through a patent system. Patents give inventors a monopoly over their invention for a limited time period, allowing them, if they wish, to make money through things like sales and licensing.

Patent Office relief on the Herbert C. Hoover Building (Neutrality)

The patent system has long been the heart of America’s innovation policy. As a way to recoup costs, patents provide strong incentives for inventors, who can spend millions of dollars and a significant amount of time developing a invention.

The history of patents in America is older than the U.S. Constitution, with several colonies granting patents years before the Constitution was created. In 1787, however, members of the Constitutional Convention opened the patent process up to people nationwide by drafting what has come to be known as the Patent and Copyright Clause of the Constitution. It allows Congress:

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

This language gives inventors exclusive rights to their inventions. It forms the foundation for today’s nationwide, federal patent system, which no longer allows states to grant patents.

Though the language itself was race-neutral, like many of the rights set forth in the Constitution, the patent system didn’t apply for black Americans born into slavery. Slaves were not considered American citizens and laws at the time prevented them from applying for or holding property, including patents. In 1857, the U.S. commissioner of patents officially ruled that slave inventions couldn’t be patented.

Slaves’ inventions exploited by owners

During the 17th and 18th centuries, America was experiencing rapid economic growth. Black inventors were major contributors during this era – even though most did not obtain any of the benefits associated with their inventions since they could not receive patent protection.

Slave owners often took credit for their slaves’ inventions. In one well-documented case, a black inventor named Ned invented an effective, innovative cotton scraper. His slave master, Oscar Stewart, attempted to patent the invention. Because Stewart was not the actual inventor, and because the actual inventor was born into slavery, the application was rejected.

Stewart ultimately began selling the cotton scraper without the benefit of patent protection and made a significant amount of money doing so. In his advertisements, he openly touted that the product was “the invention of a Negro slave – thus giving the lie to the abolition cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the Negro. When did a free Negro ever invent anything?”

Reaping benefits of own inventions

The answer to this question is that black people – both free and enslaved – invented many things during that time period.

The “Boyd Bedstead” (The Conversation)

One such innovator was Henry Boyd, who was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1802. After purchasing his own freedom in 1826, Boyd invented a corded bed created with wooden rails connected to the headboard and footboard.

The “Boyd Bedstead” was so popular that historian Carter G. Woodson profiled his success in the iconic book “The Mis-education of the Negro,” noting that Boyd’s business ultimately employed 25 white and black employees.

Though Boyd had recently purchased his freedom and should have been allowed a patent for his invention, the racist realities of the time apparently led him to believe that he wouldn’t be able to patent his invention. He ultimately decided to partner with a white craftsman, allowing his partner to apply for and receive a patent for the bed.

Some black inventors achieved financial success but no patent protection, direct or indirect. Benjamin Montgomery, who was born into slavery in 1819, invented a steamboat propeller designed for shallow waters in the 1850s. This invention was of particular value because, during that time, steamboats delivered food and other necessities through often-shallow waterways connecting settlements. If the boats got stuck, life-sustaining supplies would be delayed for days or weeks.

Montgomery tried to apply for a patent. The application was rejected due to his status as a slave. Montgomery’s owners tried to take credit for the propeller invention and patent it themselves, but the patent office also rejected their application because they were not the true inventors.

Even without patent protection, Montgomery amassed significant wealth and become one of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi after the Civil War ended. Eventually his son, Isaiah, was able to purchase more than 800 acres of land and found the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi after his father’s death.

A legacy of black innovators

The patent system was ostensibly open to free black people. From Thomas Jennings, the first black patent holder, who invented dry cleaning in 1821, to Norbert Rillieux, a free man who invented a revolutionary sugar-refining process in the 1840s, to Elijah McCoy, who obtained 57 patents over his lifetime, those with access to the patent system invented items that still touch the lives of people today.

This legacy extends through the 21st century. Lonnie Johnson generated more than US$1 billion in sales with his Super Soaker water gun invention, which has consistently been among the world’s top 20 best-selling toys each year since 1991. Johnson now owns more than 80 patents and has since developed different green technologies.

Bishop Curry V, a 10-year-old black inventor from Texas, has already applied for a patent for his invention, which he says will stop accidental deaths of children in hot cars.

Black women are also furthering the legacy of black inventors. Lisa Ascolese, known as “The Inventress,” has received multiple patents and founded the Association for Women Inventors and EntrepreneursJanet Emerson Bashen became the first black woman to receive a patent for a software invention in 2006. And Dr. Hadiyah Green recently won a $1 million grant related to an invention that may help treat cancer.

True to the legacy of American innovation, today’s black inventors are following in the footsteps of those who came before them. Now patent law doesn’t actively exclude them from protecting their inventions – and fully contributing to American progress.

[Editor's Note: This story originally included a photo we believed to be Thomas Jennings, the first black holder of a patent, but it was not him. We apologize for the error.]

10c American Inventors Alexander Graham Bell first day cover

National Postal Museum
October 28, 1940 first day issue commemorative cover for the American Inventors issue in the Famous American issues series. From Boston, Mass.; addressed to James A. Farley, Postmaster General. Cover highlights Alexander Graham Bell.

1c American Inventors Eli Whitney plate block of four

National Postal Museum
Top right margin block of 4 stamps; plate number 22619

3c American Inventors Cyrus Hall McCormick plate block of four

National Postal Museum
Top right margin block of 4 stamps; plate number 22625

10c American Inventors Alexander Graham Bell plate block of four

National Postal Museum
Top right margin block of 4 stamps; plate number 22631

5c American Inventors Elias Howe plate block of four

National Postal Museum
Top right margin block of 4 stamps; plate number 22629

Could These College Inventors Tackle the Global Pesticide Problem?

Smithsonian Magazine

Up on stage, Elizabeth Dougherty opened the folded paper, the foil seal flickering in the lights. “And the winner is,” she paused for dramatic effect, “from the University of Virginia....”

But nothing more could be heard, whoops and cheers obscured her words. Fists were pumped in the air, tears shed.

This triumphant moment belonged to a team of undergraduates and their adviser, participating in the Collegiate Inventors Competition at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Dougherty, the USPTO’s director of inventor education, outreach and recognition, and others in attendance honored Ameer Shakeel and Payam Pourtaheri for their group’s revolutionary product AgroSpheres, created with a goal of eliminating the damaging side effects of pesticides worldwide.

The duo stepped up on stage grinning unabashedly as they donned the heavy gold medals given to them as the overall winners in the competition’s undergraduate division. This highly competitive, nationwide contest encourages “innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity,” showcasing cutting-edge, student-led projects from colleges and universities across the country. (USPTO, which partners with to support stories on innovation at the Smithsonian Institution and beyond, is also a sponsor of the competition.) In addition to the hardware, the first place winners take home $10,000 with an additional $2,000 for their adviser.

“Our parents are our motivation,” says Pourtaheri on stage after the announcement. “We were both not born in the United States. They brought us here and restarted their lives so we can do what we want to do,” he says. “When they set the bar so high, it's up to you to make them proud, because you want to show them how proud of them you are.”

His research partner agreed, “I wasn't really smart enough to get into a good elementary school or middle school,” Shakeel says. So his mother worked for 12 years at his school in Pakistan so that he could get in and get a good education. “After that, it's my responsibility to do everything I can with the opportunities presented.”

Since 1990, the Collegiate Inventors Competition has recognized the hard work of both undergraduate and graduate inventors. This year, Carl Schoellhammer from MIT won the graduate division with his work on SuonoCalm, designed to provide more efficient rectal drug delivery—a so-called “21st-century enema,” the chemical engineer says in his Twitter-ready explanation. Second place in the undergraduate division went to a team from Columbia University, working on Cathecare, a product designed to eliminate opportunities for infections with catheter drug delivery.

Of the finalists, AgroSpheres seemed particularly groundbreaking, says Radia Pearlman, a computer scientist most known for her invention of Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) and one of the competition judges. “Getting rid of pesticides is an incredibly important problem, and deep science in terms of how [they] actually do it,” she says.

Pesticides are rampantly used worldwide—with global use totaling roughly 5.2 billion pounds in both 2006 and 2007, according to a comprehensive EPA study. Though these compounds are beneficial for yields and quality of crops, they have many negative side effects for wildlife and humans alike, such as cancer.

One of the biggest problems, notes Shakeel, is that developing nations shoulder the greatest burden of pesticide use. In these regions, regulations are limited. Children are often a substantial part of the rural workforce, and many may work without protective equipment or adequate training.

“We were both born in developing countries,” explains Shakeel. “And we were aware of the social problems associated with pesticide use—how it affects farmers the most.”

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces certain pre-harvest intervals (PHIs)—or time requirements between when pesticides are applied and when the crops are harvested. And though these periods allow the compounds to degrade to safe levels for harvesting, reducing risk to the workers, they also can slow down the harvest, causing crop loss if foul weather sets in before the waiting period is up.

AgroSpheres eliminates the need for PHIs, speeding the degradation of pesticides to a matter of hours as opposed to weeks or even months, says Shakeel. The idea took seed two years ago after the pair learned of an earlier attempt from a UVA team to create “bioparticles,” which are tiny biologically created balls of enzymes that can interact with and break down other compounds. But that research had ended there, without refinement of the process or practical application of the idea.

“It’s a unique case where we found the solution before the problem,” says Pourtaheri. So they started proposing ways to use it. When they approached their current adviser, Mark Kester, co-director of the NanoSTAR Institute of the University of Virginia, he knew they were on to something.

One of their ideas was to use the bioparticles for more effective or targeted delivery of drugs, but medical research on that scale is a tall order for anyone, nonetheless undergraduates. So Kester told them, “Let’s think of some easier end games here. Where are the low-hanging fruit?”

So they switched, literally, to low-hanging fruit.

Payam Pourtaheri and Ameer Shakeel are joined by their university advisor, Mark Kester, after the Collegiate Inventors Competition awards ceremony. (USPTO)

Shakeel, Pourtaheri and their teammates engineered biological particles that break down pesticides on the surface of plants. Their initial tests of the pesticide cleanup are happening in Virginia vineyards.

Though the product is patent pending—so the details of the actual mechanism and design of it are limited—AgroSpheres work because of some tricky engineering, Kester explains.

Bacteria assemble the specific enzymes necessary to non-toxically degrade the pesticides into simple compounds—sugars, fats. But the team has managed to engineer these bacteria, which Kester affectionately refers to as “bugs,” to churn out this enzyme cocktail in droves.

“What we've gotten the bug to do is not only make the biological enzyme but to actually put it into a ‘candy-coated’ shell that protects it,” he explains. Of particular importance, is that the bacteria do this without including any of their own genetic material. This means that the team can separate out the enzymes and spray these biological “M&Ms” directly on the plants pre-harvest without worry of contamination or bacterial replication.

The idea draws from the concept of “natural attenuation,” or containing the contaminated region and allowing natural processes—like bacterial degradation—to degrade the toxic compounds into benign components. But natural attenuation often takes weeks or months, and the AgroSpheres team claims to be able to concentrate the active enzymes to dramatically reduce the timeline for this process.

In the last year, their team has grown to include a total of five highly motivated students at UVA. Three are in their last year of school, with two having graduated this past spring. “You can have a great idea, but if you don’t have an incredible team it will fail,” says Pourtaheri.

The product has a long way to go before it makes it to market and must be extensively tested to ensure the claims of nontoxicity and environmental safety hold at a commercial scales. Even so, the team members all resoundingly agree that they plan to continue to pursue the research.

The researchers have tested the idea in the lab and are now running trials in vineyards and greenhouses to figure out the efficacy of the method and how long it takes the enzymes themselves to degrade. In cooperation with U.S. regulatory agencies, including the EPA, USDA and FDA, they are working to scale up the process to make it feasible for industrial-scale applications.

They hope to improve the design of the bioparticles, making them better and more efficient, explains Joe Frank, who leads research and development for the company, established in March, and is in his last year of school at UVA. They’re also hoping to expand to other applications, including the breakdown of other potentially hazardous compounds.

On stage, Dougherty asked the duo what happens after the win.

“We've got a meeting in D.C. with an [Intellectual Property] attorney at 2:30,” Shakeel says, glancing down at his watch before laughing.

Teen Inventors Create Live Closed-Captioning Glasses for the Deaf

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s a common misconception that most hearing-impaired people can easily read lips. But while many are indeed practiced lip readers, only 30 to 40 percent of English can be understood through watching the mouth. Much of spoken English occurs without lip movement, while many sounds, such as ‘b’ and ‘p,’ look identical.

This leaves many hearing-impaired people at a loss when communicating with the hearing. A number of recent technological innovations attempt to address the issue, from devices that turn spoken language into text on a smartphone to speculative systems to allow deaf people to “hear” through their tongues. That's right—researchers from Colorado State University are developing an earpiece that translates sounds into electrical patterns that it then sends to a retainer.

Now, a company is hoping to help the hearing-impaired in a more seamless way. The Live-Time Closed Captioning System (LTCCS) instantly turns speech into scrolling text displaying on a tiny screen clipped to a pair of glasses. Currently in the proof of concept phase, LTCCS’s founders say it “restores the user's ability to engage in a naturally flowing conversation.”

LTCCS creator Daniil Frants was inspired to design the device when his guitar teacher asked him if he thought Google Glass might be able to somehow help him communicate with his hearing-impaired father.

“I started messing around with Google Glass, seeing if it could do some closed captioning function,” he says. “But after six months it became obvious that there was no way to do that effectively using Glass.”

So Frants decided to do it himself. He created a system built from existing or modified parts—a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, a voice recognition system and a display adapted from one he spotted on an online technology forum. The user wears a microphone, which is connected to the microcomputer. The microcomputer picks up sounds and translates them to text using the voice recognition software, then sends them up to the display in a pair of glasses.

By the way, Frants is 17. His VP of Frants Innovators, Inc., Ilan Pesselev, is 14. The rest of his team is 18 and under. Most of them attend the same Manhattan high school.

I asked Frants where he learned the skills to create the LTCCS, given he’s yet to go to college or graduate school. He explains that his father taught him some basic programming skills and he taught himself the rest.

“If I needed to learn something new, I’d Google a bunch of stuff,” he says.

While "Googling stuff" might not help the average person figure out such a complex system, Frants is not average. At 14, he was the youngest person to ever intern at the ultra-prestigious MIT Media Lab, which focuses on human-machine research (think "smart" prosthetics and intelligent machines). He's also worked on cyber art projects that have been displayed all over the world. 

Frants and his team hope to have a proper prototype by summer 2016. Ultimately, the device will retail for $750. 

In the short term, Frants, who recently appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," hopes to study computer science at MIT. In the longer term, he’d like to see his company, Frants Innovators, become a hub for new ideas.

“Like a Darwinism for ideas, where eventually some die off and what’s left is the best idea,” he says. “I hope the LTCCS is the first idea for that.” 

World Inventors Exposition catalogue cover designed by Alvin Lustig

Archives of American Art
1 exhibition catalog : ill. ; 29 x 22 cm.

Stylized rendition of a person's head on a yellow background.

The Woman inventor

Smithsonian Libraries
"The 'Woman inventor' greets the members and visitors of the Patent Centennial Convention and presents this number, the first ever published and devoted to the cause of woman inventors of this country."

These Four Black Women Inventors Reimagined the Technology of the Home

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1888, a woman named Sarah Goode applied for and was granted a patent in Chicago, Illinois. Goode had just conceptualized what she called the "cabinet-bed," a bed designed to fold out into a writing desk. Meeting the increasing demands of urban living in small spaces, Goode invented the cabinet-bed “so as to occupy less space, and made generally to resemble some article of furniture when so folded.”

Goode was a 19th century inventor who reimagined the domestic space to make city living more efficient. Yet unless you’re a very specific kind of historian, you’ve probably never heard of her name. She doesn’t appear in history books, and what she did remains largely unknown. The same goes for Mariam E. Benjamin, Sarah Boone and Ellen Elgin—all 19th century African-American women who successfully gained patents in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

In a post-Civil War America, job opportunities and social mobility for African-American citizens were highly restricted. The obstacles for African-American women were even stronger. Universities seldom accepted women—let alone women of color—into their programs. And most careers in science and engineering, paid or unpaid, remained closed off to them for decades to come.

Women faced similar discrimination in the patent office, as law professor Deborah Merritt notes in her article “Hypatia in the Patent Office,” published in The American Journal of Legal History. “Restrictive state laws, poor educational systems, condescending cultural attitudes, and limited business opportunities combined to hamper the work of female inventors,” Merritt writes. And in the era of Reconstruction, “[r]acism and a strictly segregated society further encumbered female inventors of color.”

As a result, historians can identify only four African-American women who were granted patents for their inventions between 1865, the end of the Civil War, and the turn of the 19th century. Of these, Goode was the first.

Sarah Goode's cabinet-bed. (U.S. Patent Office / Google Patents)

The second was schoolteacher named Mariam E. Benjamin. Benjamin was granted her patent by the District of Columbia in 1888 for something called the gong and signal chair. Benjamin’s chair allowed for its occupant to signal when service was needed through a crank that would simultaneously sound a gong and display a red signal (think of it as the precursor to the call button on your airplane seat, which signals for a flight attendant to assist you).

Benjamin had grand plans for her design, which she laid out in her patent paperwork. She wanted her chair to be used in “dining-rooms, in hotels, restaurants, steamboats, railroad-trains, theaters, the hall of the Congress of the United States, the halls of the legislatures of the various States, for the use of all deliberative bodies, and for the use of invalids in hospitals.” Intending to see her invention realized, Benjamin lobbied to have her chair adopted for use in the House of Representatives. Though a candidate, the House opted for another means to summon messengers to the floor.

Next was Sarah Boone, who received a U.S. government patent from the state of Connecticut for an improvement on the ironing board in 1892. Before her improvement, ironing boards were assembled by placing a board between two supports. Boone’s design, which consisted of hinged and curved ends, made it possible to iron the inside and outside seam of slim sleeves and the curved waist of women’s dresses.

In her patent paperwork, Boone writes: “My invention relates to an improvement in ironing-boards, the object being to produce a cheap, simple, convenient, and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies garments.”

Ellen Elgin might be completely unknown as an inventor if not for her testimony in an 1890 Washington, D.C. periodical The Woman Inventor, the first publication of its kind devoted entirely to women inventors. Elgin invented a clothes wringer in 1888, which had “great financial success” according to the writer. But Elgin did not personally reap the profits, because she sold the rights to an agent for $18. 

When asked why, Elgin replied: “You know, I am black, and if it was known that a negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer; I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced to the market, that is the only reason.”

Mariam E. Benjamin's gong and signal chair. ( Credit: U.S. Patent Office / Google Patents)

Disenfranchised groups often participated in science and technology outside of institutions. For women, that place was the home. Yet although we utilize its many tools and amenities to make our lives easier and more comfortable, the home is not typically regarded as a hotbed of technological advancement. It lies outside our current understanding of technological change—and so, in turn, do women, like Goode, Benjamin, Boone, and Elgin, who sparked that change.

When I asked historian of technology Ruth Schwartz Cowan why domestic technology is not typically recognized as technology proper, she gave two main reasons. First, “[t]he definition of what technology is has shrunk so much in the last 20 years,” she says. Many of us conceptualize technology through a modern—and limited—framework of automation, computerization, and digitization. So when we look to the past, we highlight the inventions that appear to have led to where we are today—which forces us to overlook much of the domestic technology that has made our everyday living more efficient.

The second reason, Cowan says, is that “we usually associate technology with males, which is just false.” For over a century, the domestic sphere has been coded as female, the domain of women, while science, engineering, and the workplace at large has been seen as the realm of men. These associations persist even today, undermining the inventive work that women have done in the domestic sphere. Goode, Benjamin, Boone and Elgin were not associated with any university or institution. Yet they invented new technology based on what they knew through their lived experiences, making domestic labor easier and more efficient.

One can only guess how many other African American women inventors are lost to history because of restricted education possibilities and multiple forms of discrimination, we may never know who they are. This does not mean, however, that women of color were not there—learning, inventing, shaping the places in which we have lived. Discrimination kept the world from recognizing them during their lifetimes, and the narrow framework by which we define technology keeps them hidden from us now. 

2c American Inventors Samuel F. B. Morse plate block of four

National Postal Museum
Top right margin block of 4 stamps; plate number 22624
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