Ahmed Mohamed And The American Myth Of The Individual White Inventor


The story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Texas high schooler arrested this week after he brought a homemade clock to school, has been framed by two recent trends: the attention the #BlackLivesMatter movement has helped bring to disparities in the responses of law enforcement to people of color vs. other Americans; and the emphasis the war on terror and its accompanying security and surveillance states have placed on Muslim-American communities. (Those seeking to defend Mohamed’s arrest have often analyzed it instead through the lens of school shootings.)

There’s little question that both of those contemporary issues played a part in Mohamed’s treatment and arrest, particularly when we contrast this situation with the multiple incidents of other students bringing similar homemade devices to school with no such overreactions. Yet I would also contextualize the response to Mohamed in relation to another longstanding set of American myths and narratives, those focused on remembering and valorizing heroic white inventors while minimizing and eliding equally significant non-white inventors.

Illustrating this trend most succinctly is the case of Thomas Edison and the electric light bulb. Edison’s New Jersey laboratories undoubtedly pioneered that new form of technology and power in the late 19th century—but while Edison had a vital role in both overseeing and contributing to the work of those laboratories, it’s far more accurate to call their inventions the product of communal effort by teams of inventors. And one of the chief contributors to that team was Lewis Latimer (1848-1928), the son of two former slaves who had by the early 1880s become a hugely prominent draftsman and scientist.

Latimer worked with Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 on the drawings that led to the telephone patent, then went to work for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, a rival of Edison’s. While there, he received an 1882 patent for a new process for manufacturing carbon filaments for lightbulbs; when Edison hired Latimer away in 1884, it was to continue to hone this process, which became a vital component of Edison’s improved and ultimately enduring electric light bulbs.

Lewis Latimer, standing first row, left; Thomas Edison, with cane (The Latimer-Norman Family Collection)

Latimer continued to work for the company after its 1892 merger into General Electric, and all told spent nearly half of his 80 years working as part of Edison’s laboratories and corporation—and more than half a century helping pioneer some of our most significant national technologies. Yet it is Bell whom we remember for the telephone and Edison for the electric light bulb—and while those men certainly deserve a place in our collective narratives of those technologies and of American invention more generally, those narratives are quite simply incomplete without a far more prominent place for the contributions of Lewis Latimer (among many others) as well.

The same could be said for the work and contributions of Otis Boykin (1920-1982), who was born and educated in the heart of Jim Crow Texas and went on to become one of the 20th century’s leading engineers and inventors. Boykin invented more than 25 electronic devices, patenting 11 of them. The most significant was a control unit without which the modern artificial heart pacemaker would likely not have been possible, but Boykin’s electrical resistor has also been used in numerous computer and televisions over the last half century.

While we don’t necessarily associate one inventor with any of these 20th century technologies, I would nonetheless argue that we are far more likely to remember individual white men—Philo Farnsworth for the television and Steve Wozniak for the computer, for example—then the contributions of Boykin and many others.

An ink drawing of Otis Boykin from a U.S. Department of Energy biographical sketch of 1979

Even when our narratives are not actively excluding the contributions of non-white inventors, they often still valorize individual white innovators beyond what the historical details include. A case in point would be Thomas Jefferson, and the way in which both the polygraph/copying machine and the Great Clock featured prominently at his historic home Monticello are generally described as Jefferson’s inventions (despite Monticello’s own efforts to contest that narrative). In truth, these technologies, like many others in Jefferson’s home and life, were invented by others and then supported by Jefferson, who was far more a fan of scientific innovation than a contributor to it. Yet I would argue that our need for narratives of individual inventors—almost always prominent white men—too often trumps such nuanced historical details.

The obvious counter-argument to these claims would be George Washington Carver. There’s no doubt that Carver remains one of the most-remembered African Americans (at least if we take the telling example of how elementary schools teach Black History Month), and that he is defined in those narratives as an inventor. Yet it’s far from coincidental that Carver is remembered for an agricultural innovation, one closely associated with the landscapes and plantations of Georgia and the South.

When it comes to more technological advances, that is—the ones most often associated with the future, with advances in our society, with how science can move us toward our next identities—it’s long past time the Latimers and Boykins of our history took their place alongside not just Carver, but Bell, Edison, Farnsworth, Wozniak, and their peers. If Ahmed Mohamed’s technological project can help us revise our national narratives of invention and identity, he will have achieved an even more important milestone.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.