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Born on September 1, 1857 in Columbia, Mississippi, Henry E. Baker was the first author to explore and record the work of African American inventors.
He began his education at the United States Naval Academy in 1874 as only the third African American to enter the institution at the time.
While at the Naval Academy, as was customary for Black soldiers, Baker experienced discrimination as few cadets would interact with him and instructors and supervisors refused to call him by name. His time spent was only worsened by hazing and damage to his personal property. In response to this relentless disparagement, he left the Academy and completed his education at the Ben-Hyde Benton School of Technology in Washington, D.C, graduating in 1879.
By 1881, he would attend and graduate from the Howard University School of Law. According to Black Past, during his time, Baker secured a job at the United States Patent Office as a copyist. When Baker noticed the lack of published information regarding African American inventors and innovators, he took the initiative and began to publicize their work. This became a passion project that would last a lifetime.
Baker rose through the ranks at the Patent Office to Second Assistant Examiner by 1902. With the consent of the Patent Office, Baker sent out some 8,000 letters to well over 12,000 registered patent attorneys in the United States, along with company presidents, newspaper editors and prominent African Americans. He asked them to tell him about any African American who had patented or tried to patent an invention.
Baker’s investigation would uncover more than 1,200 African American inventors. Of these, 800 gave permission for Baker to reveal their identities, because there had never been identifying passages on the patent application to indicate race. But the remaining inventors refused official identification, stating that such exposure would surely make sales of their inventions drop drastically–or cease altogether.
Disappointed in the lack of unified support, Baker knew the 800 verified inventions did not represent even half of the patents filed by African Americans.
Undeterred, Baker wrote an article on African American inventors that appeared in Twentieth Century Negro Literature, in 1900. He also compiled four large volumes of actual patent drawings for those inventions. Only one set was printed, and it is now housed as a part of the Howard University Negro Collections.
According to Kentake Page, the list of African American inventors allowed Baker to provide information that was used to select inventors who were showcased at national and international exhibitions. Several African American inventors participated in the Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Inventors, as well as artists, educators, and religious leaders displayed drawings, photographs, and artifacts that portrayed positive images of African American life to the world.
Many of the identified Black inventors also demonstrated their inventions at the Pennsylvania Emancipation Exposition of 1913, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Baker would later write a pamphlet called The Colored Inventor, which he timed for the anniversary celebration.
At 70 years old, Henry E. Baker passed on April 27, 1928 in Washington, D.C.
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