Science, Technology, and Society Seminar: STS Circle at Harvard


Monday, April 3, 2017, 12:15pm to 2:00pm


CGIS Knafel Building, 1737 Cambridge Street, Bowie-Vernon Room (K262)

"Counting Black Inventors: The Historical Role of the US Patent System as a Political Resource"


Kara Swanson, NEH Fellow, the Massachusetts Historical Society; Professor of Law, Northeastern University.

Co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University.


Shana Ashar


Sheila Jasanoff, Faculty Associate. Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School.

Lunch is provided if you RSVP via our online form by Thursday of the week before the event.


From Emancipation to the present, activists have counted patents issued to African Americans and created a canon of black inventors in support of their quest for full political citizenship and social equality. By the time Carter Woodson launched the Negro History movement in 1915, the black inventor had become foundational to his project of promoting racial uplift and refuting biological theories of racial inferiority through biography. In addition to historicizing the black inventor, I argue that the power of the “black inventor” as a political resource relied upon the sociopolitical role of patents and invention formed in the early republic, a role that women’s rights activists had identified and begun to mobilize in the mid-nineteenth century.


Kara Swanson is currently a NEH Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society, on leave from Northeastern University, where she teaches intellectual property as Professor of Law. She earned a BS in molecular biophysics and biochemistry (Yale University), a master’s degree in biochemistry, and a JD (both UC-Berkeley) before practicing law as a registered patent attorney, and later earned a PhD in the History of Science (Harvard University). Her scholarship focuses on the intersections among law, science, medicine, and technology, concentrating on the United States patent system, the regulation of reproduction and the body, and issues of gender and sexuality. Her book, Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk and Sperm in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2014), is a medicolegal history of the body bank, focusing on blood, milk, and sperm banks as institutions of propertization of the human body.