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Stewart Cairns for The New York Times
Professor Rayvon Fouché examines the lives of three inventors in his book "Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation."

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Scholar Examines Black Inventors


Published: January 19, 2004

IN 1993, when Rayvon Fouché was a graduate student in history at Cornell University, he happened upon an article in The Amsterdam News, a black weekly in New York City, about African-American inventors.

"I saw something that didn't quite seem right to me," Professor Fouché, now an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., recalled in a telephone interview last week. "I started doing a little research and found out that there were actually several mistakes in the article." The mistakes ranged from inaccurate patent numbers to faulty interpretations of the larger cultural meaning of the inventions.


For example, Professor Fouché said, Garrett A. Morgan, a black, is often credited with inventing the traffic light. "It does appear that he did receive the first patent for this type of traffic regulating device, but it was not the only device to regulate traffic," Professor Fouché said.

A patent document viewed only by itself can be misleading, Professor Fouché said, and does "not convey any meaning about the significance of the patent or the person."

So began his quest to document the experience of black inventors and correct what he said is often an inaccurate record. In October, Johns Hopkins University Press published his book, "Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation," which is possibly the first full-fledged scholarly examination of black inventors in America.

In his book, Professor Fouché, 34, examines three African-American inventors: Shelby J. Davidson (1868-1930), Lewis H. Latimer (1848-1928) and Granville T. Woods (1856-1910).

These inventors "are brought out every year during Black History Month as representatives of black greatness and then reduced to their names, a patent number and some kind of artifact," Professor Fouché said.

Though they were all important figures, Professor Fouché said that his goal was not to solidify their status as icons but, rather, to present them as three-dimensional human beings.

"We must rescue the complexity - the greatness and imperfection - of black inventors to understand more fully their relevance in America today," he writes in his introduction.

Tracking down what slim documentary evidence does exist about black inventors required much creative sleuthing on Professor Fouché's part. And he discovered that the experience of each of the three inventors was vastly different.

Shelby Davidson, whose papers are at Howard University, was perhaps the easiest of the three to document. A Treasury Department employee and a black leader in Washington, Mr. Davidson invented improvements to the adding machine but also designed office tables and lamps to create efficient work space. "He really was an early practitioner of scientific management," Professor Fouché said.

Lewis Latimer - whose father, George, was a fugitive slave championed by Frederick Douglass - struggled before he found financial security as a corporate engineer with Thomas Edison.

Mr. Latimer patented or co-patented a train-car lavatory and several improvements to electric lamp design but his main historic importance was as an adviser to Mr. Edison.

"He knew all the players, all the competitors in the incandescent bulb business," Professor Fouché said. "He was an important internal consultant for Edison." Professor Fouché learned much about Mr. Latimer from reading depositions he gave during Mr. Edison's patent battles as well as from papers that Mr. Latimer's granddaughter donated to the Queens Borough Public Library.

Mr. Latimer prospered. He and his wife and children, for example, were one of the first black families to move into Flushing. But, he did so, Professor Fouché argues, by diminishing the role of race in his life.

"Several times he was asked to speak out on racial issues and each time he said no," Professor Fouché said. "He was a conservative black man. It would have been hard for him to maintain his economic status and also be outspoken."

Unlike Mr. Davidson and Mr. Latimer, Granville Woods was an independent inventor. "His was the most tragic story," Professor Fouché said.

In researching Mr. Woods at the National Archives, Professor Fouché hit primary document pay dirt: a 2,000-page trove of depositions and documents detailing legal wrangling over invention claims. In one deposition, Mr. Woods - who patented a steam boiler furnace and an electric incubator for chicken eggs - referred to a trunk stored in Monsey, N.Y., that was filled with correspondence covering 25 years.

Armed with the name of the storage company, the address, and the storage lot number, Professor Fouché drove to Monsey. But he could not find it or anyone who recalled Mr. Woods. "It's pretty clear that he couldn't pay the rental fee," Professor Fouché said. "They probably dumped out his papers and sold the trunk."

Though he died before he could reap financial gain from his inventions, Mr. Woods should be regarded as a successful inventor, Professor Fouché contends.

"When we look at black inventors, most did not have the same opportunity white ones did," he said. "We have to create a new metric of what success is. We can still consider them as African-American heroes or champions. But it's most important that we develop a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what their lives were like and what their relationships were to the larger world."

Patents may be viewed on the Web at or may be ordered through the mail, by patent number, for $3 from the Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, D.C. 20231.

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