The U.S. legal system has both helped and hindered racial justice through our history. – high points like Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which said that separate but equal inherently isn’t equal, and one of my favorites, Loving v. Virginia. This aptly titled ruling finally overturned laws against interracial marriage, and low points like the notorious Dredd Scott decision, which said that no Black person could be a citizen or sue someone in court. It’s not just the Supreme Court. As above, so below and that trickles all the way down to the USPTO. My name’s Moxie…
Real quick before we get stuck in: what is a patent? A patent is a type of intellectual property that gives its owner the legal right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention for a set period of time. Not to be confused with trademark or copyright, which you can hear more about in the episode Copy-wrong, link in the show notes. Do you *need a patent to sell an invention? No, but you need one if you want to be the only one to sell your invention. A patent can’t actually stop other people before they steal your idea, as anyone whose had to deal with cheap foreign knockoffs knows. (That happened to a fellow who designed these amazing motion-sensing LED eyelashes I bought back in my burlesque days; the Chinese knockoffs hit Amazon before his Kickstarter had even finished.) What the patent does is gives you ammo to go to court for legal remedy… if going to court is fiscally feasible and for most people it’s not.
Patents are a form of property, a thing you can own. When you live in a place were certain people, specifically those from Africa and their descendants kept in bondage in the US, are barred from *having property, that means no patents for enslaved people. A 19th century law specified that patent applicants had to sign a Patent Oath that, among other things, attested to their country of citizenship. When the Dredd Scott decision effectively denied Black Americans any citizenship at all, that meant an automatic dismissal of patent applications by slaves.
Nonetheless, Black inventors persisted and were often successful at the patent office despite staggering legal impediments. As a well known example, George Washington Carver was born a slave but was still issued three patents in his lifetime, a number that is but a shadow of his inventive genius. The first known patent to a Black inventor was issued to Thomas Jennings in 1821 for a dry cleaning method. And the first known patent to a Black woman inventor was issued to Martha Jones in 1868 for an improved corn husker and sheller. Well, she might be the first, she might not be; more on that later and by later I mean next week, because my research exceeded my grasp again.
Despite being removed from their homes, intentionally mixed with people from other regions with whom they had no common language, denied an education or even the right to educate themselves, and of course all the outright abuse and atrocities, the enslaved people of America were no less clever than their white counterparts and no less driven to improve their lives. More so, likely. When a white man invented a new farming tool, it was saving his tired back. When a black slave invented a new and improved tool, he was saving his family. The new idea could save him from lashings, spare his wife working herself to death, save the limbs of his children from the machines of the time. And of course making yourself more valuable to the person who dictates your fate doesn’t hurt.
You’ll notice a certain pattern to the stories today, not that that means the stories need telling any less. And there are always individual details, though most of them will make you face-palm so hard you’ll get a cyst. That’s a real thing that happened to my sister back in like 1990 when you made fun of someone else’s intelligence with a dramatic slap to your own forehead. And my husband thinks I’m the critical one. There are face-palmy stories like a man named Ned, who invented the cotton scraper. The man who kept Ned in bondage, Oscar Stuart, tried to patent Ned’s invention, but was denied because he couldn’t prove he was the inventor, because he wasn’t. Stuart went as far as to write to the Secretary of Interior in 1858, asserting that “the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave, both manual and intellectual.” Enslaved people weren’t actually barred from getting a patent…until later that year, when it was codified that enslaved Blacks were barred from applying for patents, as were the plantation owners. Undeterred by his lack of patent, Stuart began manufacturing the cotton scraper and reportedly used this testimonial from a fellow plantation owner, and this is the bit where you might do yourself a minor battery: “I am glad to know that your implement is the invention of a Negro slave — thus giving the lie to the abolition cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the Negro. When did a free Negro ever invent anything?” Oy vey.
Free Blacks invented *tons of things. For further reading, look up Granville T Woods, often called “the black Edison,” Woods was a self-taught engineer who received over 50 patents, which is over 50 more than most of us have, but he was clearly able to get patents, so he’s outside our focus today. We’re looking at people like Benjamin Bradley, born a slave around 1830 as a slave in Maryland. Unusually, and illegally, he was able to read and write. While being made to work in a print shop as a teenager, Bradley began working with some scrap materials, modeling a small ship. He quickly built his skills until he’d graduated from model ships to building a working steam engine from a piece of a gun-barrel and some random handy junk. You can’t not be impressed by that and the people around Bradley suitably were. He was placed in a new job, this time at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland as a classroom assistant in the science department. He helped to set up and conduct experiments, working with chemical gases. The faculty were also impressed with Bradley in his understanding of the subject matter and also with his preparedness in readying the experiments.
Praise is nice, but a paycheck is even nicer. Bradley was given a salary but he still “belonged” to a white man, who took most of his money; Bradley was allowed to keep about $5.00 a month, or about $180 today. Despite having a pretty good set-up at Annapolis, Bradley had not forgotten his steam engine. He’d sold an early prototype to a student and used that and the money he’d been able to squirrel away from his pay to build a larger model. He worked his way up to an engine large enough that his engine became the first to propel a steam-powered warship, he was with Navy types after all, at 16 knots, which is about 18 mi/29km. Because Benjamin Bradley was a slave, he was unable to secure a patent for his engine. His master did, however, allow him to sell the engine and he used that money to purchase his freedom. So if you have an idea you really believe in, stick with it.
Another Benjamin with a penchant for tinkering was Benjamin Montgomery, born in 1819 in Loudon County, Virginia. A *lot of these stories start in my home state. He was sold to Joseph E. Davis of Mississippi planter, the older brother of Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederate States of America. Joseph must have been more liberal than Jefferson, because he recognized Montgomery’s intelligence and tasked him to run the general store on the Davis Bend plantation. Montgomery, who’d been taught to read and write by Davis’ children, excelled at retail management and Davis promoted Montgomery to overseeing the entirety of his purchasing and shipping operations.
Montgomery also learned a number of other difficult tasks, including land surveying, flood control, drafting, and mechanics. The golden spike wouldn’t be driven in the transcontinental railroad until four years after the end of the civil war, so that meant that natural waterways were still the best and most important way to get widgets, kajiggers, and doodads from A to B. This wasn’t as as simple as those of us of the interstate highway system epoch might imagine. Nature, in her beauty, is inconsistent and varying and variable depths of rivers made them difficult to navigate. Heavy spring rains could cause sand bars to shift and, boom, now the boat is stuck and your cargo is delayed. They lacked the benefit of the comparatively tiny backhoe that tried to dig the Ever Given out of the Suez canal.
Montgomery set out to address that problem – he was in shipping & receiving after all – and created a propellor that could cut into the water at different angles. With it, boats could easily and reliably navigate through shallow water. Joseph Davis attempted to patent the device in 1858, but the patent was denied, not because Davis wasn’t the inventor, but because Montgomery, as a slave, was not a citizen of the United States, and thus could not apply for a patent. If this were a YT video, I’d use that clip from Naked Gun of a whole stadium of people slapping their foreheads. You can actually listen to the podcast on YT, btw. Later, both Joseph *and Jefferson Davis attempted to patent the device in their names but were denied again. Ironically and surprisingly, when Jefferson Davis later assumed the Presidency of the Confederacy, he signed into law the legislation that would allow a slaves to receive patent protection for their inventions. It’s like the opposite of a silver lining and honestly a bad place for an ad-break, but here we are.
After the civil war and the emancipation proclamation, when Montgomery, no longer a slave, he filed his own patent application… but was once again rejected. Joseph Davis sold his plantation as well as other properties to Montgomery and his son Isaiah on a long-term loan in the amount of $300,000.00. That’s a big chunk of change if that’s in today dollars, but back then? Benjamin and Isaiah wanted to use the property to establish a community of freed slaves, but natural disasters decimated their crops, leaving them unable to pay off the loan. The Davis Bend property reverted back to the Davis family and Benjamin died the following year. Undeterred, Isaiah took up his father’s dream and later purchased 840 acres of land where he and other former slaves founded the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1887, with Isaiah as its first mayor.
My research didn’t indicate why the free Montgomery’s application was refused, but oe assumes racism. The new language of patent law was written to be color-blind, but it’s humans reading the applications, so some black inventors hid their race by doing things like using initals instead of their name if their name “sounded black.” Others “used their white partners as proxies,” writes Brian L. Frye, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Law, in his article Invention of a Slave. This makes it difficult to know how many African-Americans were actually involved in early patents. Though free black Americans like Jennings were able to patent their inventions, in practice obtaining a patent was difficult and expensive, and defending your patent? Fuggedaboutit.
“If the legal system was biased against black inventors, they wouldn’t have been able to defend their patents,” says Petra Moser, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Also, you need capital to defend your patent, and black inventors generally had less access to capital.” If an issue were raised, credibility would automatically go to the white man.
It’s impossible to know how many inventions between the 1790 establishment of the patent office and the 1865 end of the Civil war were stolen from slaves. For one thing, in 1836, all the patents were being kept in Washington’s Blodget’s Hotel temporarily while a new facility was being built, when a fire broke out, which is bad. There was a fire station next door, which is good, but it was winter and the firefighters’ leather hoses had cracked in the cold, which is bad. They tried to do a bucket brigade, but it wasn’t enough, and all 10k patents and 7,000 related patent models were lost. These are called X-patents not only because they’d been lost but because, before the fire, patents weren’t numbered, just their name and issue date, like a library without the Dewey decimal system. They were able to replace some patents by asking inventors for their copy, after which they were numbered for sure. As of 2004, about 2,800 of the X-patents have been recovered. The first patent issued to a black inventor was not one of them.
That patent belonged to one Thomas Jennings, and you owe him a big ol’ thank you card if you’ve ever spilled food on your favorite fancy formalwear and had it *not been irrevocably ruined. Jennings invented a process called ‘dry scouring,’ a forerunner of modern dry cleaning. He patented the process in 1821, to wit he is widely believed to be the first black person in America to receive a patent, but it can’t really be proved or disproved on account of the fire. Whether he was first or not, Jennings was only able to do this because he was born free in New York City.
According to The Inventive Spirit of African-Americans by Patricia Carter Sluby, Jennings started out as an apprentice to a prominent New York tailor before opening his own clothing shop in Lower Manhattan, a large and successful concern. He secured a patent for his “dry scouring” method of removing dirt and grease from clothing in 1821, or as the New York Gazette reported it, a method of “Dry Scouring Clothes, and Woolen Fabrics in general, so that they keep their original shape, and have the polish and appearance of new.” I’ll take eight!
What was this revolutionary new method? No freaking clue. Because fire. But we do know Jennings kept his patent letter, signed by then Secretary of State and future president John Quincy Adams, in a gold frame over his bed. And that Jennings put much of his earnings from the invention towards the fight for abolition, funding a number of charities and legal aid societies, the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned newspaper in America. Dry-scouring put all of his children through school and they became successful in their careers and prominent in the abolition movement. His daughter Elizabeth, a schoolteacher, rose to national attention in 1854 when she boarded a whites-only horse-drawn streetcar in New York and refused to get off, like Rosa Parks 101 years before Rosa Parks, except she fought bodily the effort of the conductor to throw her off, hanging on to the window frame. A letter she wrote about the incident was published in several abolitionist papers, and her father hired a lawyer to fight the streetcar company. Amazingly, they won – again this was before the civil war, let alone civil rights. The judge ruled that it was unlawful to eject black people from public transportation so long as they were “sober, well behaved, and free from disease.” Their lawyer was a young Chester A. Arthur, who would later be the 21st president.
Henry Boyd’s story began like the others we’ve heard, but in Kentucky in 1802. He was apprenticed out to a cabinet maker, where he displayed a tremendous talent for carpentry. So proficient and hard-working was Boyd that he was allowed to take on other work of his own, a side hustle as we say these days, and earn his own money and Boyd eventually made enough to buy his freedom at age 18.
At 24-years-old, a nearly-penniless Boyd moved to Cincinnati. Ohio *was a free state, but Cincinnati sat too close to slave state of Kentucky to be a welcoming city for blacks, and I’m sure a few Cincinnatians would say it’s too close to KY for their liking nowadays too. Our skilled carpenter Boyd couldn’t find anyone willing to hire him. One shop had considered hiring him, but all the white employees threatened to quit, so no joy there. Boyd finally found work on the riverfront, with the African Americans and Irish immigrants working as stevedores and laborers; Boyd himself was a janitor in a store.
One day, when a white carpenter showed up too drunk to work, Boyd built a counter for the storekeeper. This impressed his boss so much that he contracted him for other construction projects. Through word of mouth, Boyd’s talent began to bring him some of the respect he deserved and a good amount of work. He diligently saved up to buy his brother and a sister out of bondage too and purchase his own woodshop. Not just a corner garage space; his workshop grew to spread across four buildings. This was where came up with his next big idea – a bedframe. Wait, it’s interesting, I promise. Everybody needs a bed and a bed needs a frame. The Boyd Bedstead was a sturdier, better designed bedframe that was an immediate success…that he couldn’t a patent for. But a white cabinetmaker named George Porter did. It is not known if Boyd was working with Porter and Porter was his white face for the patent office or if Porter ripped Boyd off. Either way, the Boyd bedstead became extremely popular, with prominent citizens and hotels clamoring to get them. The H. Boyd Company name was stamped on each one to set them apart from the knockoffs that such success inevitably breeds.
Not only was his bedstead breaking new ground, but his shop of up to 50 employees was racially integrated. This social advance was, politely put, not popular. The factory was the target of arsonists and was burnt to the ground. Twice. Twice Boyd rebuilt, but after a third fire, no insurance company would cover him and in 1862 the doors closed for good. But don’t worry about Boyd. He’d saved enough to live out his retirement comfortably, but he wasn’t lounging around. Boyd had been active in the Underground Railroad and housed runaway slaves in a secret room. His home was welcoming to the needy as well. Henry Boyd passed away at the age of 83 and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Spring Grove Cemetery. While you may not be able to find Boyd’s grave, you can easily find original Boy bedsteads fetching high prices in antique stores and auctions.
And that’s…You might have noticed today’s episode was a bit of a sausage party so it’s a good thing we’ll pick up again next week with the stories, triumphs and tribulations of female inventors of color. The world has so many fascinating facts in it and I am just a humble weekly half-hour podcaster, so see you next week for part two. Remember…Thanks