Reassessing the Contributions of African American Inventors to the Golden Age of Innovation

57 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2020 Last revised: 8 Feb 2023

See all articles by Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews

University of Maryland Baltimore County

Jonathan T. Rothwell

Gallup; Brookings Institution

Date Written: February 8, 2023


During the Second Industrial Revolution and subsequently, it is widely believed that Black Americans contributed disproportionately little to the economic development of the United States, especially in comparison to European Americans and immigrants from Europe. Yet, Black Americans tended to live in entirely different institutional environments than other Americans, particularly in the South under Jim Crow laws. Using a new database that matches inventors to census records, we find that patenting rates for Black Americans living in the North were very similar to patenting rates for White Americans from 1870 to 1940; in some decades and states, Northern Black patenting rates exceeded the patenting rate for White Americans. In the South, patenting rates were low for both Black and White Americans, while patenting rates for Northern Black residents were far higher than those for Southern White residents. We additionally find that Black Americans from all regions were responsible for more patents than immigrants from all but two countries (Germany and England). In total, we estimate that African Americans invented more than 50,000 patents over the period. Thus, when freed of extreme political oppression, Black Americans demonstrated a level of inventiveness that matched the most inventive groups in U.S. history.

Keywords: Patents, innovation, African American History, Race, Inequality, Entrepreneurship, Economic Growth

JEL Classification: O3, O34, O43, N00, N11, J15, J24

Suggested Citation

Andrews, Michael and Rothwell, Jonathan T., Reassessing the Contributions of African American Inventors to the Golden Age of Innovation (February 8, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

Michael Andrews

University of Maryland Baltimore County ( email )

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Baltimore, MD 21250
United States

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Jonathan T. Rothwell (Contact Author)

Gallup ( email )

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Washington, DC 20004
United States

Brookings Institution ( email )

1775 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States

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