A Smartass Talks about Inventions and Black History Month

This originates from my LJ. February 21st, 2008. The term "smartass" occasionally is used by me to mean in the way that my family kind of meant it: someone who brings up the truth when the truth isn't necessary. Heh. If you come to find a rant about whether or not we should have Black History Month, this isn't it. This is about inventors and getting the wrong attribution.

For the record, my stance is that I am OK with Black History Month as a voluntary recognition that our country is built on more than just the legacy of Dead White Guys. I see some issues with it, though, in that I think it has an overall regressive movement in some schools. where kids are taught to resent the differences between the races. In many ways, it helps to fuel a Karamazov Principle because it seemingly restructures learning around an attack on the majority populace. Untrue, yes, but one of the side effects of how screwed up human thinking is.

On a repeat airing of a Colbert Report episode, Stephen Colbert mentions George Washington Carver inventing peanut butter. I have no idea if this was merely an in character bit, or a statement of generally assumed fact, but it got me to to thinking.

Two important facts.

First off, George Washington Carver's actual inventions using the peanut were numerous and involved a lot of household items as well as foods and whatnot, and are quite neat in showing off an interesting quasi-biochemical research even though most of his research failed to be profitable.

Secondly, and most of you have probably guessed where this is going, he did not invent peanut butter. Not only was the peanut butter he talked about different than what we call peanut butter, the idea of making a peanut paste is kind of old. Wikipedia Article on Peanut Butter.

This is a fairly trivial matter, but it surprises me at how rabidly some claim that he invented peanut butter.

In another Comedy Central related incident, I saw some comedian clip (must have been a commercial) talking about "that black guy who invented the light bulb". "That black guy" the comedian was referring to was Lewis Latimer. And he did not invent the light bulb. He invented a method for making carbon filaments which helped to expand the lifespan of a given light bulb. Again, this is a guy that gets credited for an invention he did not make but gets ignored for the stuff he did (helped to draft the patent on the telephone for bell, improved "train water closets", worked extensively with early electric light uses, etc).

I'm not quite sure why these myths keep going year after year and almost seem to be picking up steam (for instance, I was never taught that Carver invented peanut butter, but classes after me apparently were). In some cases, it's part of a growing condensation of fact. We want to take all these misty little facts and render them into a few big droplets of water. Why remember that a black man helped to draft some early electric light inventions when it's easier to say "a black man invented the light bulb and Thomas Edison stole it"? Statements like that also fit into our notion of race relations. I mean, hell, Edison often used a team of workers to get things done. For all I know, a black inventor may have made strides while working for him. But it's not the guy that webpages like UKY's Aware Black Inventors claim. The website also lists Carver as inventing peanut butter in 1896, which is the year he received his Masters, not the year he started doing most famous work with peanuts (or sweet potatoes or any other product he worked with).

Looking through the rest of this list, we have the guitar (an instrument that evolved over thousands of years and going back to mid-19th if not mid-18th centuries) credited to Robert Fleming (March 3, 1886). What Fleming invented was the "Euphonica" which is an instrument he considered an improvement over the guitar.

Glancing through the list again, Benjamin Banneker (one of the few people I have read about actually calling Thomas Jefferson out, during Jefferson's lifetime, on the hypocrisy of owning slaves after making things like the old DoI) is said to have invented the almanac, which is nonsensical.

Alexander Miles is cited as inventing the elevator. Which, again, is not true. He did improve the technology.

One last lookie at the website shows Fred Jones as inventing the motor. It's the last lookie I think I will do, since it also helps to trivialize the actual inventions of Jones (say, the refrigerated truck) by substituting the motor. Which, according to this website, was made in 1939. Miraculous, you know, considering this came years after the car. Which, presumably, ran on the power of wishes before then.

All of these show the condensation effect. The biggest danger of which is that it takes the glory out of the historical figures' hands, and puts a false glory in its place. Which is no way to honor those who have come before. A much better list of black inventors is here: About.com's Black History Inventors page.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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