Thomas Jennings First Afro American to Receive a Patent
On March 3, 1821 Thomas L. Jennings became the first Afro-American to hold a U.S. Patent. Jennings invented and patented a new process for cleaning clothing. Jennings dry scouring method would later be known as dry cleaning.
Thomas Jennings, was a born a free man and thus was able to gain exclusive rights to his invention and profit from it. However, the patent Jennings received ignited a firestorm of controversy. Though Jennings was a free man many opposed the patent being held by a man of African descent. Slaves at this time could not patent their own inventions. This regulation dated back to the U.S. patent laws of 1793. The regulation was based on the legal presumption that “the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual.” Patent courts also held that slaves were not citizens and could not own rights to their inventions.
Jennings spent his early earnings on legal fees to purchase his family out of slavery, and much of the remaining portion of his income went to supporting the abolitionist movement. In 1861 patent rights were finally extended to slaves.