On October 14, 1834, Henry Blair was granted U.S. patent 8447X for a corn planter. There are several noteworthy things about this patent. First, very few patents from this time survive, as most of America’s patent records were destroyed in an 1836 fire. But more significantly, Henry Blair is the only person in the entire catalog of U.S. patents to be identified specifically as “a colored man.” No other inventor is identified by his or her race.
We know that Blair was a free farmer in the northern state of Maryland, in an age before American slavery had been abolished. Blair would earn a second patent two years later for a cotton planter. Because he could not read or write, he signed his patents with a simple “X.”
What we don’t know is why Henry Blair was uniquely singled out for his race. For years, historians thought he was the first African American to earn a U.S. patent, but it turns out this is not true. In 1900, assistant patent examiner Henry Baker began an effort to uncover the contributions of black inventors. Since this information was not recorded on any paperwork (other than Henry Blair’s), Baker sent surveys and letters all over the country. He was ultimately able to confirm that Thomas Jennings, who received U.S. patent X3306 in 1821 for the “dry scouring of clothes,” was also an African American.
We don’t know if Jennings was a free man or a slave. At that time, U.S. law granted patents to both free and enslaved men. The law was changed in 1858 to exclude slaves, after a slave owner successfully argued that he owned everything produced by his slaves. The law was changed again after the Civil War to give patent rights to all men. (Note that this did not specifically include women, but that is another story.)
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For more information go to:
- Corn Planting Machine
- Henry Blair’s Patent No. X8447
- December 15th Marks the 165th Anniversary of The Great Patent Office Fire of 1836
- Henry Blair (biography.com)
- Henry Blair (about.com)
- Agilent Careers