Did You Know About The First Black Man To Receive A Patent?

dry cleaning covered in clear plastic

On March 3, 1821 Thomas Jennings became the first Black man to receive a patent for inventing dry scouring, the method used to dry clean clothes.

During his early 20s, Jennings began his career “as an apprentice to a prominent New York tailor.” Subsequently, he would go on to open and operate “what would become a large and successful clothing shop in Lower Manhattan.”

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. And at only 29 years old, Jennings developed a technique to remove grease and dirt from clothing. He applied for and successfully “patented the process which would go on to make modern-day dry cleaning possible.”

Per the Smithsonian Magazine, “[a]n item in the New York Gazette from March 13 of that year announces Jennings’ success in patenting a method of ‘Dry Scouring Clothes, and Woolen Fabrics in general, so that they keep their original shape, and have the polish and appearance of new.’”

As Patricia Carter Sluby writes in her book “The Inventive Spirit of African-Americans,” “Jennings’ was so proud of his patent letter, which was signed by Secretary of State— and later president—John Quincy Adams, he hung it in a gilded frame over his bed.”

Jennings used the majority of his considerable earnings from his invention to help fund “the fight for abolition.” He would end up founding and supporting numerous charities and “legal aid societies, as well as Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned newspaper in America, and the influential Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.”

Unfortunately, Jennings’s exact methodology of dry scouring remains unknown to this day because of a fire in Washington’s Blodget’s Hotel. Approximately 10,000 patents “issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office between its creation in 1790 and 1836…were being temporarily stored [there] while a new facility was being built.”

Predictably during that era, a Black man receiving a patent caused controversy. According to the American Bar Association, the original Patent Act “did not explicitly exclude certain races of inventors from participation in the patent system, unlike some of the other laws that existed at that time.” However there were legal barriers in place that in practice served to exclude “the earliest black inventors in the United States from obtaining patents.”

Black people who were enslaved did not have access to the patent system because they were not citizens, and hence were not afforded Constitutional rights. In most states enslaved Blacks were prohibited “from owning any kind of property.” In addition, at that time, “the master [wa]s the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual.”

But since he was born a free man, Jennings “was able to gain exclusive rights to his invention and profit from it.” It wouldn’t be until forty years later in 1861, and five years after Jennings died that enslaved Black people would finally be able to receive patent rights.

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