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The Story of the American Inventor Denied a Patent Because He Was a Slave

The Story of the American Inventor Denied a Patent Because He Was a Slave, Paleofuture (Aug. 28, 2018) Brian L. Frye

“The world of invention is famous for its patent disputes. But what happens when your dispute wasn’t with another inventor but whether the Patent Office saw you as a person at all? In 1864, a black man named Benjamin T. Montgomery tried to patent his new propeller for steamboats. The Patent Office said that he wasn’t allowed to patent his invention. All because he was enslaved. Benjamin T. Montgomery was born into slavery in Virginia in 1819. It’s believed that he learned to read and write from a young age, something not permitted of most slaves because white slaveowners believed that knowledge might lead to rebellions. Montgomery’s literacy gave him a leg up in his later pursuit of everything from surveying to architectural drafting. He even became the first black public official in the state of Mississippi after the Civil War as a Justice of the Peace. But it was his proficiency with machines that would make him notable for the history books—provided mainstream American history books covered such things. Montgomery invented a number of machines, and documents from the 19th century claim that they involved incredibly high levels of skill to manufacture. But the precise number of inventions by Montgomery has been lost to history. The one invention that we now know the most about was his new propeller for steamboats. He tried to patent it in 1864 but the U.S. Patent Office rejected his application because he was a slave…” [h/t Mary Whisner]

  • See also Invention of a Slave, 68 Syracuse L. Rev. 181 (2018) – “On June 10, 1858, the Attorney General issued an opinion titled Invention of a Slave concluding that a slave owner could not patent a machine invented by his slave, because neither the slave owner nor his slave could take the required patent oath. The slave owner could not swear to be the inventor, and the slave could not take an oath at all. The Patent
    Office denied at least two patent applications filed by slave owners, one of which was filed by Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi,
    who later became the President of the Confederate States of America. But it also denied at least one patent application filed by a free African-American inventor, because African-Americans could not be citizens of the United States under Dred Scott…”

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