Patent examiner’s first compilation of Black patent holders was a vital step in quest for racial equality


In the 1880s, second assistant patent examiner Henry E. Baker took on a project that became his legacy: compiling the first list of African American patent holders.

Over the next few decades, Baker’s list grew to several hundred entries, an immense repository of contributions by Black inventors to the technological progress of humanity and a powerful record of the public quest for racial equality at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the inventors on Baker’s List was Jan Matzeliger, who in 1883 changed the shoe industry forever with his automatic lasting machine. He set out to make the process of joining the sole to the upper part of the shoe more efficient.

Matzeliger built his first model out of wooden cigar boxes, elastic, and wire—a prototype so complex that patent examiners had to see it in operation to understand how it worked. Matzeliger’s invention could produce 700 pairs of shoes per day, up from 50, making quality shoes widely affordable for the first time.

In 1898, Lyda D. Newman received a patent for a hairbrush with fine synthetic bristles and an inner chamber that trapped dust and dirt. Her invention paved the way for other Black innovators to further revolutionize the hair-care industry, including 2023 National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee Marjorie Stewart Joyner.

In the 1910s, Newman led efforts by the Woman Suffrage Party in New York City to involve Black women in the struggle for the vote.

Alfred Cralle, a porter in a Pittsburgh hotel, invented the one-handed ice cream scoop. And the eye protector patented by Powell Johnson of Barton, Alabama, helped firefighters and furnace workers protect their eyesight from the bright glare of the fire.

By studying and expanding on Baker’s work, we can get a much fuller picture of Black creators, trailblazers, and disruptors who helped invent modern America.

Rebekah Oakes is acting historian at the USPTO.

Help Document Black Achievement

  • If you are the descendant of a Black inventor, or know of a past innovator who lived or worked in your community, email [email protected].
  • Nominate a world-changing innovator to receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement.
  • Consider nominating an inventor to be included in a future class of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.