Black Inventors Historically Denied Rights Under Patent Law

The U.S. legal system has both helped and hindered racial justice through our history, including the Supreme Court rulings that have ranged from horrifically racist mistakes to iconic civil rights victories.  On the one hand, there’s the notorious Dredd Scott decision, which said that no Black person could be a citizen or sue someone in court.  On the other, there are cases 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. 

Unfortunately, patent law was not exempt from the racism entwined in our history. Patents are a form of property – you can even use them to secure a business loan.  So legal bans against slaves owning property prevented slaves from securing patents.  The long tentacles of the Dredd Scott ruling, based on a law from 1793, required inventors seeking U.S. patents in the 19th century to sign a Patent Oath that attested to their country of citizenship.  When the Dredd Scott decision effectively denied Black Americans any citizenship at all, this superficially innocuous Oath requirement meant that Black inventors could not even submit a patent application for consideration.

Nonetheless, Black inventors persisted and were often successful at the patent office despite staggering legal impediments. The first known patent to a Black inventor was issued to Thomas Jennings in 1821 for a dry cleaning method.

Corn husker and sheller technical drawing

And the first known patent to a Black woman inventor was issued to Martha Jones in 1868 for an improved corn husker and sheller. (That was after the 13th and 14th amendments overturned Dredd Scott.)

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.  Contrary to popular myth, Carver didn’t invent peanut butter.  But he did invent hundreds of products based on peanuts, among so many others.  In fact, he eventually became widely known as the “Peanut Man” due in part to  his inventive efforts, as well as his energetic advocacy for the crop as a solution to the damaging decline of cotton production in the American South.

Less well known is Elijah McCoy, born in 1844 to escaped slaves who had fled to Canada for safety.  McCoy studied mechanical engineering in Scotland before emigrating to the U.S. and settling in Michigan. All told, he was granted a staggering 57 patents over his lifetime; many focused on improvements to railroad travel. Relatedly, McCoy also left his mark on the English language.  The inimitable quality of some of his designs – and the inferior copies that they inspired  – led to the still-relevant expression “the real McCoy”!

Not to be bested, Granville T. Woods also secured nearly 60 patents in his life, ranging from amusement park rides to air-brakes, from home heating systems to telegraph and telephone devices. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell purchased one of Woods’ telephone patents, helping Woods secure the financial independence to pursue his innovation full time.  On a less friendly note, Thomas Edison actually sued Woods for ownership of several of Woods’ inventions.  After multiple losses in court, Edison then offered to bring Woods on as a partner.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, Woods declined.

As more modern examples, Dr. Patricia Bath was not only the first American woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program but also patented a laser surgery tool that dramatically improved cataract surgery. 

Black American Lonnie Johnson NASA engineer and inventor of the Super Soaker holding his invention

And Lonnie Johnson was both a NASA engineer and the inventor of the Super Soaker – an accidental invention of sorts, inspired when an eco-friendly heat pump he was tinkering with rocketed a stream of water across the bathroom.  I know that my childhood sends a heartfelt thanks for that!