The National Museum of American History holds vast and significant collections pertaining to the history of invention and innovation. In order to identify future documentation goals, the Lemelson Center has started to analyze existing collections for strengths and weaknesses. Our experience suggests a need for greater documentation of women and minority inventors. The current invention record captures the contributions almost exclusively of white males and we seek more balance in the historical record. Locating the papers of women and minority inventors--both historical and contemporary--is not easily accomplished. Documentarians need to look beyond the customary sources.
Historically, women and minority inventors typically worked on the periphery of many professions. Women were part of "creative couples," such as Pierre and Marie Curie, or assisted husbands, family members, or male co-workers in completing gender-appropriate tasks such as editing and writing, illustration and model-making, measurements, routine tasks, and interacting with the public. African American and other minority inventors faced racial and ethnic discrimination and segregation. These circumstances often limit extant documentation.
However, materials such as staff lists for private companies, R&D laboratories, government agencies, and women’s or minority colleges; oral histories; newsclippings; and photographs can offer clues to identifying inventions by women and minority inventors. Research on traditional women's areas--for example, the beauty industry, cooking, sewing, child care, health, toys, clothes, and furnishings--can yield previously undiscovered documentation of inventive activities. Records of extraordinary events, such as military conflicts and natural disasters, sometimes document new opportunities for women and minorities. For example, during World War II, women replaced men drafted into military service in such previously all-male areas as computing and heavy industry.
Studying prominent male inventors can also provide the necessary lead to identifying creative women and minorities. For example, some successful male inventors relied on women assistants and encouraged women to move from assistant to professional while also providing advice and strategies for success. The records of better-known inventors may also offer insights into work done by minority inventors in their employ.
When interviewing a contemporary woman or minority inventor, be sure to ask about relationships with others. Which inventors actively involved family members in their work? What role did female/minority members play? Did that role change over time? Was the work gendered or racially segregated? What credit, if any, did the woman/minority inventor receive for his/her work? Tap into this community and develop networks that can yield important information.