Patents and Inventions

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Patents and Inventions

The U.S. Constitution (article 1, section 8) empowers Congress "to promote the progress of science by securing to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." The first U.S. Patent Act, passed in 1790, had two basic purposes: to protect inventors from unauthorized use of their work and to provide the public with increased access to information about useful inventions.

Although free blacks were legally entitled to hold patents prior to the Civil War, few actually received them. The first African American known to have received a patent was Thomas L. Jennings, for a dry-cleaning process (March 3, 1821). Following him was Henry Blair, who patented a corn-seed planter in 1834 and a cottonseed planter in 1836. In 1843 Norbert Rillieux patented a refining process that revolutionized the sugar industry.

Blacks were hindered, however, from participating fully in the system. They did not have routine access to apprenticeships in the white-dominated crafts and trades and, therefore, to the kind of training and experience that would have helped nurture their inventive skills. As a result, black inventors had to rely almost entirely on their own initiative. Furthermore, their products tended to evolve out of occupations that had been predetermined as acceptable for blacksfor example, domestic service, carpentry, and agriculture. Within these constraints, a few African Americans developed successful, important inventions. Some, such as Jennings, achieved wealth and social visibility, which they subsequently used as leverage in campaigns aimed at improving the lot of black Americans.

Slaves were not entitled to hold patents, yet some developed creative implements and techniques that enhanced the efficiency of their masters' businesses. Slave craftsmen emerged as a small, elite group distinct from field laborers and domestic servants. Because of their legal standing, the question arose as to who (if anyone) was entitled to ownership of their inventions. In 1857 one Mississippi slave owner claimed the rights to his slave's invention, a cotton scraper regarded as an innovative laborsaving device. The federal government denied this claim, reinforcing the prohibition on ownership by slaves but also declining to grant slave owners the privilege of "owning" the fruits of a slave's inventive genius. In response the Confederate Patent Act asserted the ownership rights to slave owners in such cases. It was no mere coincidence that Joseph Davis, the brother of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, had earlier been denied a patent on a steamboat propeller invented by his slave, Benjamin Montgomery.

After the Civil War no one was excluded from taking out a patent on grounds of race or legal status. The result was a dramatic increase in the number of patents awarded to blacks. On August 10, 1894, the names and inventions of ninety-two blacks were read into the Congressional Record. By 1900 blacks had been awarded over four hundred patents. Among them was A. P. Ashbourne for processes relating to food preparation. In 1872 Elijah McCoy received the first of many patents on automatic engine lubrication, processes critical to the railroad and shipping industries. Jan Matzeliger received a patent (March 20, 1883) for his invention of a shoe-lasting machine, followed by four others also relating to the technology of shoemaking. In the mid-1920s, after decades of innovative work in botany and agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, George Washington Carver took out patents for a cosmetic and for pigment-producing processes. Such inventions reflected the ongoing concentration of blacks in service and manual-labor occupationsa pattern influenced not just by social tradition but also by the emphasis that black leaders such as Booker T. Washington placed on industrial and technical education as the most promising path of opportunity for African Americans.

This path was consistent with the pressures of American urbanization. By the turn of the twentieth century, as blacks migrated to the cities, many had entered technical occupations in government and industry. Andrew F. Hilyer, an attorney in Washington, D.C., patented a room humidifier in 1890; Robert Pelham, a newspaper publisher in Detroit, patented a tabulating machine in 1905 and an adding machine in 1913; Garrett Morgan of Cleveland patented a gas mask in 1914 and an automatic traffic signal in 1923. Granville Woods and Lewis Latimer contributed to the emergence of electricity as an energy replacement for gas. Woods, known as the "black Edison," patented a telegraph transmitter in 1884 and, subsequently, devices to facilitate railway electrification. In 1881 Latimer patented a method for producing carbon filaments and became part of the research team of the Edison Electric Light Company.

Access to a career as an inventor became more difficult as the growing complexity of technology changed the character of innovation and discovery. In the twentieth century the solitary, self-motivated inventor was replaced by teams of salaried researchers, often with advanced degrees, working in large companies or government-sponsored laboratories. Few blacks qualified for such positions, and those who did often faced discrimination by prospective employers. This sheds light on why the participation of blacks in patenting and invention is proportionately lower today than it was a hundred years ago.

See also Inventors and Inventions


Baker, Henry E. The Colored Inventor: A Record of Fifty Years. 1915. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968.

James, Portia P. The Real McCoy: African-American Invention and Innovation, 16191930. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Klein, Aaron. Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America. New York: Doubleday, 1971.

Sluby, Patricia Carter. The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

philip n. alexander (1996)
Updated bibliography