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Patent Examiner Tells the Story of African American Inventors

Generations of schoolchildren in the United States have learned about George Washington Carver, a scientist whose innovations helped revitalize southern agriculture in the early 20th century. But author Patricia Carter Sluby believes too many other black inventors remain unknown to the general public, even though they have had a huge impact on the way Americans live and work.

Her new book -- The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity -- chronicles a history of achievement dating back to America's early days as a nation.

Ms. Sluby's book grew out of her job as an examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. After being asked by an administrator there to put together a list of African American inventors, she began searching back through history for names. She was surprised by what she found.

"The African American inventor has invented in every subject any other person has invented in," Ms. Sluby says. "From agriculture to games to computers, they have turned around industries, bringing us a better level of living."

While black slaves invented all kinds of farm and household devices to make their lives easier, Patricia Carter Sluby says they were unable to lay claim to their inventions or protect them in court. However, free blacks could and did become inventors. Among the earliest was Benjamin Banneker, whose pioneering achievements spanned the second half of the 18th century.

"He worked with Pierre L'Enfant in developing the layout for Washington D.C.," says Ms. Sluby. "He was an astronomer. He was a mathematician. And he developed a clock, I think the first operating clock in America."

In 1821, a tailor named Thomas L. Jennings became the first black man to receive a U.S. patent. He devised a technique for dry-cleaning clothes, and used the proceeds to support the anti-slavery movement. Other blacks invented items ranging from golf tees to a revolutionary method for refining sugar.

Elijah McCoy gave America a new industrial device - and, with it, a new slang phrase that is still used today. "He developed an automatic oiling process," Ms. Sluby explains. "It became so well known that railroad personnel and industrial engineers and mechanics wouldn't use any other piece of equipment unless it contained 'the real McCoy.'"

As career opportunities expanded for black Americans in the 20th century, so too did the range of their inventions. "A lot of them went to universities and received higher degrees," Patricia Carter Sluby says. "Then they began to work in the corporate area on teams. They were engineers or they were chemists or they were physicists."

African American inventors now play leading roles in computer technology, telecommunications and military defense. George Nauflett spent 42 years doing research at a government laboratory in suburban Washington, D.C. He earned 26 patents for his work, even though he'd left school after only the eighth grade.

"One of the inventions was on a material used in one of the satellites when the Russians and Americans went up in space," Mr. Nauflett says. "The material was no longer made by private industry because one of its components was carcinogenic. So I came up with a stopgap method."

But like other inventors described in Ms. Sluby's book, George Nauflett says he faced many challenges as an African American. "People don't believe you can do the things you do," says Mr. Nauflett. "They say you're just lucky. But when you keep doing it over and over again, you end up proving yourself."

Michelle Payne also had to prove herself as an inventor. She and her husband drew on their experience running a cleaning service to devise a hose that conveys water from sink faucets to containers. Their invention is now on sale at Home Depot, one of America's major home improvement chains. But Michelle Payne says launching the venture wasn't easy. "People aren't open to African Americans doing something that's not the normal thing," says the Fredericksburg, Virginia businesswoman. "I went to a bank to proceed in getting a loan for my project, and I had some actual orders, and I was still turned down."

Michelle Payne is now working on other inventions, even though she has no formal training as a scientist or engineer. Author Patricia Carter Sluby says you don't necessarily need a lot of education to come up with something new and useful. As an example, she points to an African American inventor named Henrietta Bradberry.

"She had no more than a formal grade school education," says Ms. Sluby. "But in 1945, she invented a torpedo discharge technique, an intricate device that discharges torpedoes. Here's an ordinary housewife who has no training in engineering, no training in the sciences. So this is an extraordinary story."

What is critical to the success of an inventor is the ability to spot a need that has not been met -- and then devise a creative way to meet that need. In The Inventive Spirit of African Americans, Patricia Carter Sluby describes how black inventors have succeeded in doing both -- from the slave era to the information age.