By: Dejaih Johnson
With February being Black History Month, I find this is a great opportunity to look at a brief history of the U.S. patent system and some of the African American inventors, innovators, and scientists who have helped shape American innovation.
The history of patents in America is older than the U.S. Constitution. Prior to the Constitutional Convention, colonies would grant patents in solidarity. After 1787, the patent process was opened up to the people by what is now the Patent Copyright Clause of the Constitution. Though on its face race-neutral, the patent system did not apply for Black Americans born slaves since laws prohibited slaves from applying for or holding property. As a form of intellectual property, this included patents. In 1857, the U.S. commissioner for patents officially ruled that inventions by slaves could not be patented and were without protection.
Without a patent system, you cannot have innovation. Patents allow inventors to exercise a monopoly over their invention. Patents also allow inventors to make money from their patent by selling it or licensing it out for use by another party. Thus, the inability for slave inventors to be granted a patent for their inventions was detrimental during times where the American economy was experiencing rapid growth.
Although the laws prevented slaves from owning patents, that did not stop them from inventing. Often times, slave owners took credit for their slaves’ inventions through laws that said the “[slave master] is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual.” But Black inventors continued to provide major contributions. On March 3, 1821, Thomas Jennings became the first African-American inventor to be granted a patent for a process we now call “dry cleaning”. Definitively able to receive the fruits of his labor, Jennings spent the remainder of his years as a civil rights activist and much of his earnings promoting abolitionist causes. A short time after, Elijah McCoy, a free man from Canada, invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships. Over his lifetime, McCoy obtained 57 patents, and this legacy has extended through the 21st Century. Former Air Force and NASA engineer, Lonnie Johnson, currently holds over 100 patents with over 20 more pending. Johnson is most famously known for his invention of the Super Soaker water gun and has generated more than $1 billion in U.S. sales. But success does not stop short of women. In 2006, Janey Emerson Bashen became the first Black woman to receive a patent for a software invention, and Dr. Hadiyah Green recently won a $1 million grant related to an invention that may help treat cancer.
African Americans have played a vital role in shaping innovation in this country. The effects of which can be felt every single day in the U.S. and around the world. True to the legacy of American innovation, today’s Black inventors continue to follow in the footsteps of those who came before them, in honor of their struggle and misused and underappreciated labor.
American’s always had black inventors – even when the patent system explicitly excluded them, The Conversation, (Feb. 19, 2017), https://theconversation.com/americas-always-had-black-inventors-even-when-the-patent-system-explicitly-excluded-them-72619.
Biography, Lonnie Johnson, https://www.lonniejohnson.com/biography/ (last visited Feb. 8, 2019).
Diversity in Innovation: African-Americans’ Impact is Forever Reaching, InvetorsDigest, (Mar. 21, 2018), https://www.inventorsdigest.com/articles/diversity-innovation-african-americans-impact-forever-reaching/.
Dr. Hadiyah Green Wants to Use Lasers to Kill Cancer Cells, NBC News, (Mar. 17, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/dr-hadiyah-green-plans-defeat-cancer-lasers-n741206.
Elijah McCoy, Wikipedia, (Feb. 8, 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elijah_McCoy.
11 African American Inventors Who Changed the World, Mental Floss, (Feb. 6, 2018), http://mentalfloss.com/article/86923/11-african-american-inventors-who-changed-world.