Reassessing the Contributions of African American Inventors to the Golden Age of Innovation
17 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2020 Last revised: 16 Apr 2021
Date Written: October 15, 2020
During the Industrial Revolution and subsequently, it is widely believed that African Americans contributed disproportionately little to the economic development of the United States, especially in comparison to European Americans and immigrants from Europe. Yet, African Americans lived 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 the share of patents invented by Black Americans living in the North matched their share of the U.S. population from 1870 to 1940 and exceeded it in some decades and in some Northern states throughout the period. We find that Black Americans from all regions were responsible for more patents than immigrants from all but two countries (Germany and England). Northern Black Americans patented at rates that exceeded Southern White Americans and were comparable to the highest patenting groups. In total, we estimate that African Americans were the identified inventors of 50,000 patents over the period. Thus, when freed of extreme political oppression, African American demonstrated 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
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