• African-American Inventors I
    Lewis Latimer, an inventor of the 19th century, patented this attachment for a lamp.

    Draft of patent courtesy the United States Patent and Trademark Office

    Thomas Jennings
    Although Henry Blair is the first inventor to be identified as black by the U.S. Patent Office, he is not the first African American to be awarded a U.S. patent. Most historians agree that Thomas L. Jennings is the first African American patent holder in the United States. Jennings invented a way to dry-clean clothes in 1821. Judy W. Reed, of Washington, D.C., was the first African American woman to receive a patent. Reed's invention, patent number 305,474, granted September 23, 1884, is for a dough kneader and roller.

    By Mary Schons

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    A patent is a government grant to an inventor for an invention. George Washington signed the first patent law on April 10, 1790. The law gave patent holders the sole right to make and sell their invention for fourteen years. It prevents other people from copying their invention and making money off it during that time. The Patent Act encourages progress in science by allowing patent holders the right to make a living from their own creativity.

    To receive a patent, an invention must be new and contribute something useful. A patent can't be granted to something that has already been invented, but a patent can be granted to improve an already existing invention. Patents can be granted to machines, products, devices, and processes. Chemical compounds, food, drugs, and the processes to make these things can also be patented.

    Before the Civil War (1861–1865), slavery was legal in the United States. Slaves were considered property and couldn't apply for patents. This didn't stop slaves from creating new inventions. Onesimus, a Massachusetts slave owned by Puritan leader Cotton Mather, is credited with making a remedy for smallpox that was introduced in 1721. Another Massachusetts slave, Ebar, invented a broom made from broomcorn around 1800. Papan's treatment of skin and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) was so effective the Virginia state legislature freed him from slavery to practice medicine.

    The following three men are notable African American inventors of the 18th century. All three men were born free; they were not slaves. There may have been many more African Americans, slave and free, who came up with inventions, but their stories have been lost to history.

    Benjamin Banneker
    Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806) was a self-taught mathematician and surveyor. When he was 21, Banneker was shown a pocket watch. He was so fascinated by the watch that its owner gave it to Banneker. He took it apart and put it back together several times before deciding to build his own timepiece. A year later, Banneker invented a clock out of wood that struck a gong on the hour and kept time to the second. Banneker's wooden clock kept time for more than 40 years.

    In 1792, Banneker completed the first Banneker's Almanac. Almanacs were important books in the 18th century because they told exactly when the sun came up in the morning and set at night. Almanacs also listed tide tables, dates of lunar and solar eclipses, holidays, and phases of the moon. Banneker's Almanac was commonly used by farmers and other residents of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia during the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Banneker gave a first edition of his almanac to Thomas Jefferson. Banneker called on Jefferson to give black men and women equal rights, and to fight against prejudice that was "so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion . . . a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world." Jefferson replied to Banneker, writing, "nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of other colors of man." Slavery would be abolished 59 years after Banneker's death.

    James Forten
    James Forten (1766–1842) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and lived there most of his life. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Revolutionary War. Captured and imprisoned by the British, Forten was offered his freedom if he agreed to live in England. Forten replied, "I am here a prisoner for the liberties of my country. I never, never shall prove a traitor to her interests!"

    After the war, Forten was apprenticed to a sailmaker. He quickly learned the trade and developed a patent for a device to handle ship sails, which made him a wealthy man. Forten used his money to advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.

    George Peake
    George Peake (1722–1827) also fought in the Revolutionary War. He was the first African American to be part of the settlement that eventually became Cleveland, Ohio. At this time, Ohio was a largely unsettled frontier in the western part of the United States.

    Peake invented a hand mill for grinding corn. His hand mill was made of two round stones approximately nineteen inches wide. Peake's invention was easier to use than the traditional mortar and pestle, and ground the corn more smoothly. Although Peake didn't patent his invention, he received credit for it in the November 8, 1858, issue of the newspaper Cleveland Leader.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abolition Noun

    ending or wiping out of something, usually referring to the ending of slavery.

    advocate Verb

    to argue in favor of something.

    almanac Noun

    annual publication containing a calendar, astronomical information, and weather forecasts.

    apprentice Verb

    to work alongside an expert or master in order to learn a particular skill.

    approximately Adjective

    generally or near an exact figure.

    Benjamin Banneker Noun

    (1731-1806) American scientist and inventor.

    brethren Noun

    fellow members of a group, often religious.

    broomcorn Noun

    type of sorghum wheat used for making brooms.

    censure Noun

    strong rejection or disapproval.

    chemical Noun

    molecular properties of a substance.

    Civil War Noun

    (1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

    complexion Noun

    color and appearance of the skin on a person's face.

    Cotton Mather Noun

    (1663-1728) Colonial American minister and author.

    drug Noun

    chemical substance used to change the physical or mental state of an organism.

    dry-clean Verb

    to wash clothes with chemicals instead of water.

    eclipse Verb

    to block out or overshadow.

    farmer Noun

    person who cultivates land and raises crops.

    fascinate Verb

    to cause an interest in.

    frontier Noun

    largely unpopulated area that is slowly being opened up for settlement.

    George Peake Noun

    (1722-1827) American inventor. Developed a hand mill to replace the mortar and pestle.

    George Washington Noun

    (1732-1799) first president of the United States.

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    grant Noun

    money given to a person or group of people to carry out a specific project or program.

    hand mill Noun

    small device, able to be operated by one person, used to grind large pieces of material into smaller ones.

    invention Noun

    new idea, machine, product, device, or process.

    inventor Noun

    person who creates a new idea, machine, product, device, or process.

    James Forten Noun

    (1766-1842) American businessman and abolitionist.

    labor Noun

    work or employment.

    legislature Noun

    group of people, usually elected, who make and change laws.

    liberty Noun


    mathematician Noun

    person who studies the theory and application of quantities, groupings, shapes, and their relationships.

    mortar and pestle Noun

    tool used for crushing and mixing. The mortar is a bowl and the pestle is a thick rod or stick.

    patent Noun

    legal right to make or sell an invention.

    patent law Noun

    rules and regulations having to do with inventions and inventors.

    prejudice Noun

    unfair feeling for or against someone or something without basis in reason.

    prevalent Adjective

    common or widespread.

    Puritan Noun

    member of a strict Protestant religious and political group that originated in England in the 1500s.

    remedy Noun

    cure or relief for an illness.

    Revolutionary War Noun

    (1775-1783) conflict between Great Britain and the colonies that became the United States. Also called the American War of Independence.

    slavery Noun

    process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.

    smallpox Noun

    very contagious, often fatal disease wiped out with vaccination programs.

    sole Adjective

    only or individual.

    surveyor Noun

    person who analyzes the specific boundaries and features of a piece of land using mathematical concepts such as geometry.

    Thomas Jefferson Noun

    (1743-1826) Third president of the United States.

    tide table Noun

    chart that shows the exact times for high tides and low tides in a specific area.

    traitor Noun

    someone who betrays a person or idea.

    venereal disease Noun

    sexually transmitted disease (STD).

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