PHutures – 100 Alumni Voices »

Adam Bisno

“Where you land first isn’t where you necessarily end up. And for all I know there is no ending up. None of us stays in jobs for career length anymore. And moving from job to job is really ok, I think, as long as you can keep your resume telling whatever story you need it to tell.”

Krieger School of Arts and Sciences

History, PhD 2018

Official Historian of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Adam’s Podcast Episode

In this episode, we discuss what led Adam to pursue a career in the federal government, his experience working as the official historian of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and his advice for PhD students searching and applying for jobs outside of academia.

Learn More About Adam’s Story

As historian of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 2020 to 2022, I inherited an early-twentieth-century list of U.S. patents held by African Americans compiled by a patent examiner and civil rights activist named Henry Baker (1857–1928). Looking everywhere for descendants of these patentees, I finally found one: Richard F. America Jr., born in the 1940s, whose father had patented three devices while he was still in his teens. America Jr. agreed to share his father’s papers with me. From these sources and America’s recollections, I learned a lot about the special meaning of patents as family heirlooms and artifacts of the struggle for civil rights. I also learned how to tell a story that really isn’t my own.

Richard F. America, the son of a patentee, agreed to let us—me, my assistant historian at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the production crew for the National Inventors Hall of Fame—make a documentary about his father’s record of innovation. His testimony and family heirlooms helped us present a personal history of family, gender, race, labor, and everyday life for Black Philadelphians in the early twentieth century. Richard America, our generous star, takes center stage. I’m off camera but visible on the left. The lesson for me, a historian in front of my first living source: sure, I’m asking the questions and composing the narrative, but these stories aren’t mine. Behind them lie other people’s real lives. Through me, I hope, these stories then take on lives of their own.