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Rayvon Fouché

Rayvon Fouché, assistant professor of science and technology studies. Photo by Stewart Cairns

Science and Technology Studies

Looking Back on Black Inventors

In his new book, Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation (Johns Hopkins University Press), Rayvon Fouché explores what it was like to be a black inventor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an age of rapid industrialization and segregation. The book examines the life and work of three African-American inventors: independent inventor Granville Woods (1856–1910); Lewis Latimer (1848–1928), a General Electric corporate engineer; and Shelby Davidson (1868–1930), who worked in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Woods patented a steam boiler furnace and an electric incubator. Shelby Davidson invented adding machines as a means to improving efficiency in the treasury department. Latimer co-patented a train-car lavatory and several improvements to electric lamp design.

Fouché, assistant professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer, describes how the three men struggled to balance their racial identities while holding on to their dreams of being judged solely on the content of their technological achievements. He paints a complex picture of each one’s life and cultural background that includes accomplishments as well as foibles.

“Tracking down what slim documentary evidence does exist about black inventors required much creative sleuthing on Professor Fouché’s part,” said New York Times writer Teresa Riordan in her story about Fouché’s book in the Jan. 19 edition of the paper.

“For the most part, all that we know and think that we need to know about black inventors can be summarized in names, inventions, and patent numbers,” Fouché writes in his introduction. “This historical reduction conceals the complex and contradictory human identities of black inventors as well as the difficulties they endured to gain the patent protection that would, in the best situations, enable them to profit from their work.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: Spring 2004
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