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Colors of Innovation

Early History of African American Inventors

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Henry Blair - Seed Planter

Henry Blair - Seed Planter

USPTO
Thomas Jennings, born in 1791, is believed to have been the first Black inventor to receive a patent for an invention. He was 30 years old when he was granted a patent for a dry cleaning process. Jennings was a free tradesman and operated a dry cleaning business in New York City. His income went mostly to his abolitionist activities. In 1831, he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, PA.

Slaves were prohibited from receiving patents on their inventions. Although free Black inventors were legally able to receive patents, most did not. Some feared that recognition and most likely the prejudice that would come with it would destroy their livelihoods.

92 Black inventors

George Washington Murray was a teacher, farmer, and U.S. Congressman from South Carolina from 1893 to 1897. From his seat in the House of representatives, Murray was in a unique position to bring into focus the achievements of a people recently emancipated. Speaking on behalf of proposed legislation for a Cotton States Exhibition to publicize the South’s technological process since the Civil War, Murray urged that a separate space be reserved to display some of the achievements of southern Blacks. He explained the reasons why Blacks should participate in regional and national expositions saying:

"Mr. Speaker, the colored people of this country want an opportunity to show that the progress, that the civilization which is now admired the world over, that the civilization which is now leading the world, that the civilization which all nations of the world look up to and imitate--the colored people, I say, want an opportunity to show that they, too, are part and parcel of that great civilization."

And he proceeded to read the names and inventions of 92 Black inventors into the Congressional Record.

Henry Baker

What we know about early African American innovators comes mostly from the work of Henry Baker. He was an assistant patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office who was dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the contributions of Black inventors.

Around 1900, the Patent Office conducted a survey to gather information about Black inventors and their inventions. Letters were sent to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors, and prominent African-Americans. Henry Baker recorded the replies and followed-up on leads. Baker’s research also provided the information used to select Black inventions exhibited at the Cotton Centennial in New Orleans, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta.

By the time of his death, Henry Baker had compiled four massive volumes.

First African American Woman to Patent

Judy W. Reed may not have been able to write her name, but she patented a hand-operated machine for kneading and rolling dough. She is probably the first African-American woman to obtain a patent. Sarah E. Goode is believed to have been the second African-American woman to receive a patent.

Race Identification

Henry Blair was the only person to be identified in the Patent Office records as "a colored man." Henry Blair was the second black inventor issued a patent. Blair was born in Montgomery County, Maryland around 1807. He received a patent on October 14, 1834 for a seed planter and a patent in 1836 for a cotton planter.

Continue > African American Inventors of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

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