14 Oct: The First African-American Patents

Henry Blair, the only inventor ever denoted as a ‘colored man’ in the records of US Patent Office, received a patent for his invention of a mechanical corn planter on 14th October, 1834. For decades, it was believed this was the first example of an African-American inventor receiving a US patent.

The truth turns out to be more complex, and is touched by the legacy of slavery, legal reform, and black activism… but Thomas Jennings, the inventor of ‘dry scouring’ (an early instance of dry cleaning) registered his patent thirteen years earlier and is, probably, the true holder of the title.

In this episode, Arion, Rebecca and Olly look back over some of the most useful inventions contributed by American people of colour; explain why the rules over enslaved people’s intellectual property were so vague and unreliable; and reveal what it looked like when Thomas Jefferson fobs you off…

Content Warning: racism, negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures

Further Reading:

‘Inventor Henry Blair and His Patents’ (ThoughtCo, 2019): https://www.thoughtco.com/inventor-henry-blair-1991284

• ‘Whose Patent is It?: American Patent Law Denies Slave Creativity’ (HistoryNet, 2017): https://www.historynet.com/whose-patent-is-it-american-patent-law-denies-slave-creativity/

• ‘Awesome Inventions by African Americans’ (SciShow, 2012):

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The Retrospectors are Olly Mann, Rebecca Messina & Arion McNicoll, with Matt Hill.

Theme Music: Pass The Peas. Announcer: Bob Ravelli. Graphic Design: Terry Saunders. Edit Producer: Sophie King.

Copyright: Rethink Audio / Olly Mann 2022.