Benjamin Montgomery - born into slavery in 1819 in Loudon County, Virginia. Benjamin invented a special propeller which allowed steamboats to navigate in shallow water.
|Posted by The Reunion Black Family on March 9, 2012 at 1:15 PM|
Benjamin Montgomery - born into slavery in 1819 in Loudon County, Virginia. Benjamin invented a special propeller which allowed steamboats to navigate in
by John H. Lienhard - Today, we ask, "Who should own a patent?" The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I'm troubled by the patent and copyright system. It lets one person invent something and another one own the patent. Inventors can sell patents. Survivors can inherit them. Employers can own their employees' inventions.
An event from 1857 puts all that in a particularly ugly perspective. That year, a plantation owner named Oscar Stewart wrote the secretary of the interior. His slave, Ned, had invented a new, and very effective, cotton scraper. Stewart wanted to patent it.
Historian Portia Jones explains that Stewart walked around the patent office because he knew the commissioner of patents was a Northerner. He might not understand about masters and slaves.
But the secretary of the interior went straight to the patent office anyway. And they wrote back saying Ned would have to swear an oath that he was a citizen before they'd give him a patent. Of course, as a slave, he was not a citizen.
Stewart blew up when he read that. He was certainly not so foolish as to think Ned could hold a patent. After all, Ned was just property! Stewart obviously meant the patent for himself.
A nasty North-South issue had landed in the attorney general's lap. So he made a draconian ruling: henceforth, patents would not be given for slave inventions -- neither to master nor to slave.
So Stewart went into business making Ned's cotton scraper without the luxury of patent protection. No matter, he made a pile of money anyway. And his advertising said openly that the scraper was "the invention of a Negro slave -- thus giving the lie to the abolition cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the Negro."
Jefferson Davis, soon to be president of the Confederacy, ran afoul of that ruling a year or so later. His brother had a slave named Benjamin Montgomery. Montgomery was a smart mechanic who'd invented a propeller to replace steamboat paddle wheels. Now it couldn't be patented! When the South broke away from the Union, Davis saw to it that Confederate patent law clearly made slave inventions into the property of their masters.