The Story of the American Inventor Denied a Patent Because He Was a Slave

By Matt Novak on at

The world of invention is famous for its patent disputes. But what happens when your dispute wasn’t with another inventor but whether the Patent Office saw you as a person at all? In 1864, a black man named Benjamin T. Montgomery tried to patent his new propeller for steamboats. The US Patent Office said that he wasn’t allowed to patent his invention. All because he was enslaved.

Benjamin T. Montgomery was born into slavery in the US state of Virginia in 1819. It’s believed that he learned to read and write from a young age, something not permitted of most slaves because white slaveowners believed that knowledge might lead to rebellions. Montgomery’s literacy gave him a leg up in his later pursuit of everything from surveying to architectural drafting. He even became the first black public official in the state of Mississippi after the American Civil War as a Justice of the Peace. But it was his proficiency with machines that would make him notable for the history books—provided mainstream American history books covered such things.

Montgomery invented a number of machines, and documents from the 19th century claim that they involved incredibly high levels of skill to manufacture. But the precise number of inventions by Montgomery has been lost to history. The one invention that we now know the most about was his new propeller for steamboats. He tried to patent it in 1864 but the US Patent Office rejected his application because he was a slave.

Why would the patent office of the Northern US, where slavery was now outlawed, be so discriminatory against black people during the Civil War? Joseph Holt, head of the Patent Office at the time, was from the Southern US and interpreted legislation to mean that a free black person who had escaped to the North didn’t have the right to patent his invention. Holt also denied free black men from northern states the same right, despite objections from northern senators.

Benjamin T. Montgomery was sold in an 1837 slave auction to Joseph Davis, the brother of future president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. The Davis brothers both lived south of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they owned large plantations next to each other.

It’s unclear who the first black American to achieve a patent might be for two reasons: The Patent Office didn’t require people to submit their race when applying for a patent, and black inventors would sometimes use white third parties to obtain patents so as not to face discrimination.

All that being said, the first known black inventor to successfully get a patent was Thomas L. Jennings of New York in 1821. But the laws regarding patents changed frequently in the first half of the 19th century. During some years it was required that people applying for an American patent be citizens of the United States. During other times, non-citizens were allowed to receive American patents. And this is where Montgomery’s trouble stems from. The infamous Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857 said that slaves lacked standing in court because they weren’t citizens. And the Patent Office applied that logic to patent law. If Montgomery wasn’t a citizen, he couldn’t take the pledge as a citizen that his invention had been conceived by him.

Practically every modern account of Benjamin T. Montgomery notes just how “liberal” his owner was. But that’s something that obviously needs to be taken with an enormous boulder of salt. Even if Joseph Davis allowed Montgomery some level of autonomy by, as the histories suggest, having him work as a merchant and business manager on the plantation, Montgomery was still another person’s property.

The book The History of Black Business in America reminds us of that perspective:

As slaves, Montgomery and his family were subjected to all the horrors of slavery. At any time, they could have been sold, separately or together. The women could have been sexually abused by whites with impunity. It is doubtful that Davis would have manumitted Montgomery, who proved to be such a valuable slave and who virtually managed the plantation not only as a CEO but also as a chief operating officer. Such a position provided Montgomery with leverage to protect his family from the worst abuses of slavery. What were his alternatives?

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While the “privileged” material life of the Montgomery slave family was highly unusual, if not unique, in the annals of American slavery, the intrapreneurial and entreprenurial activities of Benjamin Montgomery were not. In fact, on large plantations such activities were the rule more than the exception.

The relative nature of our circumstances is illuminated by Montgomery’s struggle with the Patent Office. His inventions couldn’t be patented because he wasn’t seen as a human being, granted all the rights that a free white man might have.

Associate Professor of Law at Kentucky Law School’s Brian Frye wrote a fascinating paper on Montgomery called, “Invention of a Slave.” That paper includes an early description of Montgomery’s propeller invention:

Acting on ‘the canoe paddling principle,’ the blades cut into the water at an angle, causing less resistance and therefore less loss of power and jarring of the boat. With this propeller, which weighed a fraction of the conventional paddle wheel, there was no need for a wheelhouse. [Montgomery] made a prototype which he operated by hand on the Mississippi for a couple of years before the Civil War, but he dreamed of powering it with a steam engine so that its advantages could be truly tested.

Both Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph attempted to patent Montgomery’s invention in 1859, but they were told that they couldn’t because neither had actually invented the device. And slaveowners saw this as a great injustice. Believe it or not, slaveowners believed that they were being discriminated against by not being able to patent the inventions of their slaves. When the Civil War broke out in 1860, the new Confederate States of America formed its own patent office, but no one ever filed a patent with it. The Davis brothers were too busy fighting a treasonous war to worry about such things.

Frye’s paper includes some fascinating documents about the era, including arguments from Southerners of the time that inventions by enslaved people proved that slavery was better for black people. Seriously.

Mississippi Senator Albert G. Brown wrote to a slaveholder in Holmesville, Mississippi, about a new plow invented by his slave:

I am glad to know that your implement is the invention of a negro slave—thus giving the lie to the abolition cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the negro. When did a free negro ever invent anything?

Astoundingly, it was a common sentiment that allowed white slaveowners to rationalize their enslavement of black people. Another senator, David S. Reid of North Carolina, even submitted a bill in 1859 that would have allowed slaveowners to patent the inventions of their slaves, but it was dead on arrival. Abolitionist newspapers ridiculed the idea with snarky articles highlighting the inventions of slaves, like a satirical one in the Washington, DC, newspaper The National Era titled, “An Inventive Piece of Property.”

Montgomery assumed control of Joseph Davis’s plantation after it was burned to the ground by Union soldiers on 24 June 1862. But by 1863, he had made it to the state of Ohio, where his propeller was displayed at the Western Sanitary Fair. The Sanitary Fairs were used by the North to raise money during the Civil War, but Montgomery found Ohio to be rife with hostility towards people of colour, despite being in the North.

Little documentation exists on Montgomery’s rejected effort to patent his invention, but Brian L. Frye cites an interesting letter that’s currently held at Rice University. The letter was from William E. Simonds, the Commissioner of Patents, to Mrs Jefferson V. Davis.

The letter reads:

Dear Madam:

June 28, 1864, a colored man by the name of B. T. Montgomery filed an application for a patent for a propeller in this office. He represented himself as having been at some previous time the body servant of your husband. Will you kindly let me know whether you have any knowledge as to the correctness or incorrectness of his representation, and if you know what the fact was.

Why did Montgomery identify himself as a former slave? Why did government officials in the north want to verify with slaveowners in the south that Montgomery had been a slave? The answer is certainly “racism.” But the details appear to be lost to history.

The rest of Montgomery’s life would be one of severe ups and downs. He returned to his former owner’s plantation after the Civil War and secretly bought it from Joseph Davis and his brother in late 1866. It had to be in secret because even though slaves were now free it was still illegal in Mississippi to sell land to black people. That law became unenforceable the following year as the federal government sought to bring freedom to formerly enslaved people.

The idea for Montgomery’s newly acquired land was to turn the area into a “community composed exclusively of coloured people,” as one advertisement that Montgomery took out in the November 1866 issue of the Vicksburg Daily Times described it—just one of many intentional societies built in the south in the aftermath of the Civil War. Montgomery called it Davis Bend, but the community always struggled with hostility from surrounding white communities. Flooding and a bad harvest further complicated things in Davis Bend and Montgomery couldn’t keep up the payments to his former owners, the Davis brothers. While Joseph allegedly wanted to “forgive” the interest payments and allow Montgomery to keep the land as long as he could keep paying the principal, his brother Jefferson, now the defeated leader of a treasonous former country, wasn’t having any of it. After Joseph died in 1870, his brother Jefferson effectively stole the land from Montgomery.

Benjamin T. Montgomery died on 12 May 1877, after a long struggle with physical disability. He had been injured in December of 1874 while helping to demolish a home and never fully recovered.

His inventions were displayed at both the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, the first World’s Fair in America (just a year before his death), as well as at the famous 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any illustrations or photos of Montgomery’s inventions on display. Montgomery’s ingenuity was “re-discovered” in the early 20th century as Americans who were interested in the history of technology learned about his unfortunate predicament. Montgomery’s son, Isaiah, gave an interview to a magazine in 1909 that informs some of what we know about the man today, including the fact that his owner was “liberal.” But Benjamin’s son Isaiah had a complicated relationship with African-American rights that should be considered when we look at his claims. As Frye points out, Isaiah made a name for himself as the only black Republican delegate at the party’s Mississippi convention in 1890. But Isaiah strangely advocated for stripping black people of the right to vote.

A letter from a patent attorney in 1892 provides a good example of just how skilled Benjamin T. Montgomery was as an inventor. While suggesting that a model of Montgomery’s propeller be included in an 1893 World’s Fair exhibit, the patent attorney wrote that it could be on display with President Abraham Lincoln’s own invention of a paddleboat.

“Now, if the slave’s propeller model could be procured and exhibited in the same case with the great emancipator’s model of his boat, it would attract the attention of thousands,” the patent attorney wrote. “It is my impression, however, that Lincoln’s model would suffer by the comparison.”