On Black inventors PolitiFact needs to double check its facts

October 8, 2020

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “PolitiFact Wisconsin” 9/9/2020, Eric Litke commented on a statement made by Joe Biden that an African American had invented the light bulb. Litke rated Biden’s statement as mostly false while acknowledging that Lewis Latimer, an African American scientist, had made significant contributions to the development of the light bulb, while giving major credit to Thomas Edison.

Biden’s point, that contributions of African Americans to science and technology have been largely ignored, is grounded in fact. I have made presentations in classrooms about African American inventors and when I’ve asked students if they knew who invented the electric light, they have usually said Thomas Edison. Only once was Latimer’s name mentioned, even though Latimer invented and patented important components of the light bulb; played a significant role on the Edison team at a time when few African Americans had the opportunity to study electricity; and wrote a book on incandescent electric lighting in 1890, which became a highly regarded guide for lighting engineers.

Granville T. Woods was one of Edison’s main rivals and never have I heard a student or teacher mention his name. Woods was a prolific African American inventor who had dozens of patents related to electrical systems, new energy, and communication systems. Woods sold many of his patents to General Electric, Westinghouse and Bell Telephone and he won two patent battles in court against Thomas Edison, who tried to claim credit for one of his inventions. When Edison could not beat Woods in court, he invited Woods to join his company, but Woods turned him down and started his own electrical and engineering company, with his brother as an assistant. According to Jeff Suess of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the American Catholic Tribune called Woods “ the greatest electrician in the world and praised him above his contemporaries, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell”.

Even though times were difficult for African Americans and obtaining a good education was a challenge, many brilliant Black scientists refused to be limited by racism and segregation. They persevered and made major contributions to the world through their persistence and ingenuity. Like Woods, many African American inventors had to sell their patents to survive and did not have the opportunity to realize the profits they may have generated. Credit for many inventions created by slaves was given to their owners because slaves were not legally allowed to own patents or profit from them. According to Shontavia Johnson, Smithsonianmag.com, Black inventors were major contributors during the 17th and 18th centuries. One example is a slave named Ned who invented an effective cotton scraper. His owner, Oscar Stewart, made considerable money off this invention and in this case, did give credit to his slave as the inventor. Another was Benjamin Montgomery who invented a steamboat propeller for use in shallow water. His owners tried to take credit for it but were not able to obtain a patent. Montgomery eventually was able to make money with his invention without patent protection. Most other enslaved inventors were not as fortunate.

On April 26, 2006, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an extensive article called, “Energy in Our World Today.” Of course, Thomas Edison was featured, along with George Westinghouse, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and others. I remember feeling disappointed that no mention was made of the many African American scientists and inventors who also contributed to this important field, such as Elijah McCoy, who received a patent in 1872 for the first lubricating cup that regulated the flow of oil on moving machines; David Crosthwait, for his patents related to heating and ventilating systems; Frederick M. Jones, who invented the first refrigeration system for moving vehicles; or J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., who used his talents in the research and development of nuclear power. Other little known African American scientists include George R. Carruthers, astrophysicist, who developed space telescopes for the Apollo 16 mission; and Christine M. Darden, who first worked at NASA as a mathematician, earned a Ph.D. in engineering and worked as an aerospace engineer designing airplane wings. She later worked on the design of supersonic airplanes that can fly faster than the speed of sound but without producing the loud sonic booms. (Sources: Black Contributors to Science and Energy Technology, Courtesy of Wisconsin Electric Power Company and Black Achievers in Science, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.) The vast majority of African American inventors and scientists are largely unknown to most people.

Mr. Litke’s statement, “We should note, all of the inventors referenced here (Encyclopedia Britannica) were white. So, who is Biden referring to?” proves the point that Joe Biden was trying to make. It is time to include the history, inventions and contributions of African American men and women, as well as those of other people of color in our books, courses, and curricula to reflect the true story of America.

– Helen Harris