Inventors worldwide have made all of our lives better by turning their ideas into products that suit our everyday needs. From Thomas Edison, who in 1877 invented the phonograph, to Gideon Sundback, Elias Howe, Whitcomb Judson and Max Wolff, who worked together to create what we now know as the zipper, inventors find ways to make how we live our lives easier. If you look back, history books and records tell the stories about those inventions that are part of the greater percentage of patented inventors, white American males.
May is National Inventors Month, and to celebrate, we want to shine a light on those inventors who have been crucial to the growth of innovation in America but whose names might not be as popularly known. For example, Judy W. Reed is the first recorded African American woman to obtain a patent for her hand-operated machine for rolling and kneading dough, the Dough Kneader and Roller. Thomas Jennings, who invented a fabric cleaning process called dry-scouring, is credited as the first African American to receive a patent in 1820 – nearly five decades before eliminating the practice of chattel slavery.
This important legacy continues today. Ellen Ochoa, famously known for being the first Hispanic woman astronaut, is also the co-inventor on three patents for an optical inspection system and a method for noise removal in images. Uruguayan, Alejandro Zaffaroni, invented and patented the “Bandage for Administering Drugs” and now holds over 45 patents.
All these inventors represent only a tiny portion of the group of underrepresented minorities in the patent system. According to a study published in the Journal of National Academy of Inventors, “Women, especially African American and Hispanic women, obtain patents at significantly lower rates than men; people of color obtain patents at significantly lower rates than whites; and individuals from lower-income families are significantly less likely to obtain a patent than individuals who grew up in wealthier families.”
Nonetheless, the contributions that diverse inventors have made are invaluable and world-changing.
But thankfully, change is happening.
Legislation such as the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement (IDEA) Act could change how the USPTO collects information on inventors, allowing them to collect demographic data on patent applicants voluntarily. Access to this information is necessary to enable the USPTO to accurately examine the patent gaps and track progress toward closing them. Allowing the patent office to collect demographic data is the first step to understanding and addressing the underlying patent gaps and empowering diverse inventors.
By allowing a better understanding of individuals who file patents, our nation would build an inventor ecosystem and better understand and address the patent disparities among women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. The Senate Judiciary Committee recently passed the IDEA Act, getting us one step closer to understanding the barriers faced by underrepresented groups and giving us the tools to build a future that supports all inventors regardless of race, gender or social-economic background, ensuring equal representation and a more diverse and inclusive invention ecosystem in the United States.
By breaking down systemic barriers and opening doors to a more diverse pool of inventors, those life-changing advancements will continue happening, and our invention ecosystem will be accessible to anyone with a desire to change the world. As we celebrate National Inventors Month, let’s take time and effort to honor these individuals who have contributed to the development of life-changing technology, science, design and beyond while advancing the way we live and carry out our daily lives.