When the US Patent and Copyright clause of the Constitution was drafted in 1787, it granted inventors nationwide exclusive rights to their inventions – but did not apply to black Americans, who remained at the mercy of others trying to take credit for their inventions.
February’s Black History Month in the USA provides an opportunity to reflect on the challenges black American inventors faced and the inventions created despite these challenges.
Innovation through struggle
In the 17th and 18th century, the United States experienced a period of rapid economic growth. Black inventors were major contributors, creating inventions such as mechanical reapers, a propeller that helped boats navigate more easily through shallow water and a steam engine large enough to drive a ship at 16 knots.
However, it was not uncommon for slave owners to take credit for inventions during this time and profit from these ideas. Even after purchasing their freedom, black inventors still faced difficulty patenting inventions. Some found unique solutions: Henry Boyd – inventor of the ‘Boyd Bedstead’ – partnered with a white craftsman and had his partner apply for a patent for his invention.
Thomas Jennings was the first black American to receive a patent - for inventing dry cleaning - on March 3rd, 1821. As well as being an inventor, Jennings was a pioneer of civil rights for African Americans. He organised the Legal Rights Association in New York, which raised challenges to discrimination and funded legal cases to support African Americans.
Black Americans were formally denied IP rights until 1870 when the US government finally passed a law allowing all men – irrespective of skin colour – to patent their inventions.
Dr. Meredith Charles ‘Flash’ Gourdine held 98 patents to his name. His most significant invention was the ‘Incineraid’ system, helping remove smoke from buildings and remove fog from airport runways. Dr. Gourdine would later earn patents for circuit breakers, acoustic imaging and a method to cool computer chips. His inventions are still cited by scholars today.
Other inventions attributed to black Americans in the last four centuries include home surveillance devices, the gas mask and traffic signals. Black inventors have also significantly reduced the suffering of people with medical conditions – Dr. Patricia Bath’s Laserphaco Probe allows cataracts patients to no longer have to risk surgery with a mechanical grinder. The device made Patricia Bath the first African-American woman to receive a patent for a medical purpose.
Black History Month is an opportunity to remember the innovation that has benefited society from black Americans – many of whom have helped shape today’s IP industry.