In 1886, Shelbyville, Illinois resident Josephine Cochran noticed her dishes were getting chipped from constantly washing them by hand. Female patent holders were few and far between back then, but that didn’t stop Cochran from applying for and receiving a patent for a dish washing machine, what we recognize today as the modern dishwasher.
A new study by Sarada, an assistant professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, looks at shifts in the demographics of American inventors from 1870-1940. Published in Explorations in Economic History with co-authors Michael Andrews of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Nicholas Ziebarth of Auburn University, the paper examines who benefits from innovation and who is excluded from entry during this early era of American history.
The team’s research is included in a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) report given to Congress as it votes on the SUCCESS Act, a bill that advocates for greater study of and legislation for increased numbers of women, minority, and veteran patent holders.
WSB: Tell us about your study and the bill. It must be exciting to see your research have such a direct impact on shaping policy.
Sarada: The bill aims to gain a better understanding of the extent to which there is broad participation in patenting and business ownership among different underrepresented populations in the U.S. The report provides that sense of landscape and then considers what can be done to expand participation.
Our research is the first work that actually provides comprehensive information from this period of U.S. history. There is some literature form the 1800s onwards, but our study puts together data from 1860-1940 and synthesizes that information into a bigger picture.
WSB: Your data shows that women as a demographic, for example, had very little representation as inventors and patent holders. In some ways, that doesn’t seem surprising given the era.
Sarada: Yes, but the really striking thing about our paper is it shows that not much has changed for female inventors in the past hundred years. During the time period we studied, women made up 50 percent of the population but they were only between 3 and 6 percent of inventors. That’s not much of a shift from where we are today.
Josephine Cochran’s example was not typical for women. People innovate on something they know, the problems that they see. And the problems seen by a woman might be very different than those seen by a man. Cochran’s invention grew out of a need she witnessed in her own household.
WSB: Describe the process you and your co-authors went through in finding and analyzing the data. It no doubt posed some unique challenges.
Sarada: One of the innovations of the paper is just methodologically, how do you do this? It was technically quite difficult, which was why no one had it available. There was a lot of data analytics, figuring out how to create algorithms that allow you to extract information from large data sets that have missing information. We looked at USPTO patent records from the 1800s and linked them to U.S. Census records.
WSB: Let’s talk about some of the other specific trends and findings from the paper. There’s a lot to unpack here.
Sarada: It is true! To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this whole study is that it’s not attempting to answer a question in a narrow way; it poses a myriad of patterns that generate many more questions than it answers.
We found a number of distinct demographic patterns. African Americans were severely underrepresented—only 2 percent of the population were patent holders. Inventors on the whole tended to be slightly older, white, and male. Immigrants—these were primarily white immigrants—were better off when it came to patenting than other groups. The odds of a foreign-born individual holding a patent were about the same as for the average population in 1870, but by 1940, immigrants became 1.6 times more likely to patent than native-born individuals.
We also see a shift occupationally during this period from farming to white-collar professions, so that is reflected as well.
WSB: Any hope we can take from these figures? Or do you feel pessimistic about the state of inventor demographics?
Sarada: No, I think we can see it as a positive. If only a small fraction of inventors are participating, that means there’s tremendous room for innovation and growth among females and minority populations. It’s unfortunate that it is the way it is, but the silver lining is it can create this greater space for the implementation of ideas and for breaking down barriers. And more feasible innovation means more feasible economic growth. I think that’s the whole point of this bill.
Read the paper “Changes in the Demographics of American Inventors, 1870-1940,” published in Explorations in Economic History.
Sarada is an assistant professor in the Department of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business.