Next time you think about who might become an innovator, think perhaps of Lewis Latimer. The child of an enslaved couple who escaped and made it from Virginia to Boston, Latimer went on to develop a new way of heat-treating carbon filaments to make them last longer. It was one of many steps that helped bring electric lighting to the masses.
And according to new research, Latimer was part of a larger phenomenon. Black Americans – when they lived in Northern states that offered them greater opportunity – were inventing and obtaining patents at the same rates as white Americans.
“During this era, the United States was arguably the most inventive place on Earth at what was arguably the most inventive era in world history. This puts northern Black people in the global vanguard of invention in the late 19th and early 20th century,” write authors Jonathan Rothwell and Andre Perry of the Brookings Institution, and Mike Andrews of the University of Maryland.
The tally of 50,000 patents by Black Americans in that era is more than an interesting revision of the history books. It’s a reminder of the flourishing that occurs when human talents are given rein – and the harm to individuals and society when artificial barriers stand in the way.
“The point is that it isn’t markets generating extreme inequality, it is political institutions,” Mr. Rothwell tweeted recently as the new research was released. “Black people – and, I would say, any group of people – possess the natural ability to acquire advanced technical skills & apply them ... and have done so when given the chance.”