The Intellectual Revolution presents…
Thomas L. Jennings (1791–1856) was the first African-American to be granted a patent, March 03, 1821 (U.S. patent 3306x). Jennings’ patent was for a dry cleaning process called “dry scouring”, which would go on to make modern-day dry cleaning possible. In his early 20s he became a tailor but then opened a dry cleaning business in New York City. While running his business Jennings developed dry-scouring and patented the process at age 30.
The patent to Jennings generated considerable controversy during this period. 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. Thomas Jennings, however, was a born a free man and thus was able to gain exclusive rights to his invention and profit from it.
He 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. Jennings was also a skilled tradesmen, which aided him in running a successful business, and an abolitionist. In 1861 patent rights were finally extended to slaves, 5 years after Jennings’ death.
– Supreme Soul