The events of 2020 drew renewed attention to longstanding inequalities in the invention and innovation ecosystem and Black Americans’ complex relationship with technology. In the United States, Black men and women are less likely than other demographics to earn STEM degrees, receive patents, or commercialize new products and services. Black scientists and engineers experience unconscious bias and outright discrimination in the high-tech employment sector, while Black inventor-entrepreneurs face persistent difficulties in gaining access to venture capital, intellectual property protection, and commercial networks. With Black technologists largely absent from the invention process, supposedly neutral apps and algorithms are encoded with racist assumptions that perpetuate negative stereotypes and deepen social inequality. And yet, Black Americans regularly invent, tweak, and deploy technology in the course of cultural and political expression and develop new products and services with global reach.
The United States—and the world—have benefitted tremendously from those new technologies, scientific breakthroughs, and artistic and creative products invented by Black Americans. But in each of these areas, the institutions and organizations that recognize achievement, offer start-up capital, and write the histories and educational materials that shape young people’s perspectives have left out Black inventors. Scholars have performed significant work in the past decade to recover these lost stories, and new voices have advanced critical insights into the makeup of invention ecosystems and the lasting impact of how we define invention and innovation.
This website summarizes a rich set of presentations and discussions on the topic of “Black Inventors and Innovators” that took place in November 2020 as a webinar series organized by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. We have outlined key findings and action steps that aspire to improve future research, public history, and educational materials.
Founded in 1995 and located within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the Lemelson Center from its beginnings has had a particular focus on less known, hidden, and even erased histories of inventors. The webinar series was an opportunity to hear directly from Black inventors as well as economists and policy studies professionals who have carried out new scholarship on the topic. One key call to action of the symposium was to use history to identify what is causing such inequality in the invention and innovation ecosystems—and to address how to bring about meaningful change.
Looking ahead, the Lemelson Center (and other museums, libraries, and archives) will do additional work to document, interpret, and share the stories of contemporary Black inventors and innovators in collaboration with their communities, even as we continue to find and tell the stories of past inventors whose achievements have remained obscured. The insights and perspectives advanced here will help us better serve the American public, and we invite readers of this report to join us in this work.
Organizing a symposium during the COVID-19 pandemic required the dedication, flexibility, and hard work of many people. I thank our outstanding panelists, without whom this conference would not have been possible, and the Lemelson Center staff for their extraordinary efforts with planning and logistics for the webinar series. In addition, I thank Stacia Pelletier for helping us develop the conference report. In closing, I wish to thank The Lemelson Foundation for its support of the webinar series and its ongoing efforts to encourage the development of more diverse, inclusive, and equitable invention and innovation ecosystems.
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director