patent is a government grant to an inventor for an inventionGeorge Washington signed the first patent law on April 10, 1790. The law gave patent holders the sole right to make and sell their invention for 14 years. It prevents other people from copying their invention and making money off it during that time. The Patent Act encourages progress in science by allowing patent holders the right to make a living from their own creativity. 

To receive a patent, an invention must be new and contribute something useful. A patent can't be granted to something that has already been invented, but a patent can be granted to improve an already existing invention. Patents can be granted to machines, products, devices, and processes. Chemical compounds, food, drugs, and the processes to make these things can also be patented. 

Before the Civil War (1861–1865), slavery was legal in the United States. Enslaved people were considered property and couldn't apply for patents. This didn't stop them from creating new inventions. Onesimus, a Massachusetts man enslaved by Puritan leader Cotton Mather, is credited with making a remedy for smallpox that was introduced in 1721. Papan's treatment of skin and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) was so effective the Virginia state legislature freed him from slavery so that he could practice medicine. 

The following three men are notable African American inventors of the 18th century. All three men were born free; they were not enslaved persons. There were many more African Americans, men and women, enslaved and free, who designed, manufactured, and sold inventions. Most of their stories have been lost to history.

Benjamin Banneker


Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806) was a self-taught mathematician and surveyor. When he was 21, Banneker was shown a pocket watch. He was so fascinated by the watch that its owner lent it to Banneker. He spent time studying pocket watches before deciding to build his own timepiece. A year later, Banneker invented a clock out of wood that struck a gong on the hour and kept time to the second. Banneker's wooden clock kept time for more than 40 years. 

In 1792, Banneker completed the first Banneker's Almanac. Almanacs were important books in the 18th century because they told exactly when the sun came up in the morning and set at night. Almanacs also listed tide tables, dates of lunar and solar eclipses, holidays, and phases of the moon. Banneker's Almanac was commonly used by farmers and other residents of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Banneker gave a first edition of his almanac to Thomas Jefferson. He called on Jefferson to give black men and women equal rights, and to fight against prejudice that was "so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion . . . a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world." Jefferson replied to Banneker, writing, "nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of other colors of man." Slavery was abolished 59 years after Banneker's death.

James Forten


James Forten (1766–1842) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and lived there most of his life. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Revolutionary War. Captured and imprisoned by the British, Forten was offered his freedom if he agreed to live in England. Forten replied, "I am here a prisoner for the liberties of my country. I never, never shall prove a traitor to her interests!" 

After the war, Forten was apprenticed to a sailmaker. He quickly learned the trade and developed a patent for a device to handle ship sails, which made him a wealthy man. Forten used his money to advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.

George Peake


George Peake (1722–1827) also fought in the Revolutionary War. He was the first African American to be part of the settlement that eventually became Cleveland, Ohio. At this time, Ohio was a largely unsettled frontier in the western part of the United States.

Peake invented a hand mill for grinding corn. His hand mill was made of two round stones approximately 48 centimeters (19 inches) wide. Peake's invention was easier to use than the traditional mortar and pestle, and ground the corn more smoothly. Although Peake didn't patent his invention, he received credit for it in the November 8, 1858, issue of the newspaper Cleveland Leader.

African-American Inventors I
Lewis Latimer, an inventor of the 19th century, patented this attachment for a lamp.

Thomas Jennings
Although Henry Blair is the first inventor to be identified as black by the U.S. Patent Office, he is not the first African American to be awarded a U.S. patent. Most historians agree that Thomas L. Jennings is the first African American patent holder in the United States. Jennings invented a way to dry-clean clothes in 1821. Judy W. Reed, of Washington, D.C., was the first African American woman to receive a patent. Reed's invention, patent number 305,474, granted September 23, 1884, is for a dough kneader and roller.

Noun

ending or wiping out of something, usually referring to the ending of slavery.

advocate
Verb

to argue in favor of something.

almanac
Noun

annual publication containing a calendar, astronomical information, and weather forecasts.

apprentice
Verb

to work alongside an expert or master in order to learn a particular skill.

approximately
Adjective

generally or near an exact figure.

Benjamin Banneker
Noun

(1731-1806) American scientist and inventor.

brethren
Noun

fellow members of a group, often religious.

broomcorn
Noun

type of sorghum wheat used for making brooms.

censure
Noun

strong rejection or disapproval.

chemical
Noun

molecular properties of a substance.

Civil War
Noun

(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

complexion
Noun

color and appearance of the skin on a person's face.

Cotton Mather
Noun

(1663-1728) Colonial American minister and author.

drug
Noun

chemical substance used to change the physical or mental state of an organism.

dry-clean
Verb

to wash clothes with chemicals instead of water.

eclipse
Verb

to block out or overshadow.

farmer
Noun

person who cultivates land and raises crops.

fascinate
Verb

to cause an interest in.

frontier
Noun

largely unpopulated area that is slowly being opened up for settlement.

George Peake
Noun

(1722-1827) American inventor. Developed a hand mill to replace the mortar and pestle.

George Washington
Noun

(1732-1799) first president of the United States.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

grant
Noun

money given to a person or group of people to carry out a specific project or program.

hand mill
Noun

small device, able to be operated by one person, used to grind large pieces of material into smaller ones.

invention
Noun

new idea, machine, product, device, or process.

inventor
Noun

person who creates a new idea, machine, product, device, or process.

James Forten
Noun

(1766-1842) American businessman and abolitionist.

labor
Noun

work or employment.

legislature
Noun

group of people, usually elected, who make and change laws.

liberty
Noun

freedom.

mathematician
Noun

person who studies the theory and application of quantities, groupings, shapes, and their relationships.

mortar and pestle
Noun

tool used for crushing and mixing. The mortar is a bowl and the pestle is a thick rod or stick.

patent
Noun

legal right to make or sell an invention.

patent law
Noun

rules and regulations having to do with inventions and inventors.

prejudice
Noun

unfair feeling for or against someone or something without basis in reason.

prevalent
Adjective

common or widespread.

Puritan
Noun

member of a strict Protestant religious and political group that originated in England in the 1500s.

remedy
Noun

cure or relief for an illness.

Revolutionary War
Noun

(1775-1783) conflict between Great Britain and the colonies that became the United States. Also called the American War of Independence.

slavery
Noun

process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.

smallpox
Noun

very contagious, often fatal disease wiped out with vaccination programs.

sole
Adjective

only or individual.

surveyor
Noun

person who analyzes the specific boundaries and features of a piece of land using mathematical concepts such as geometry.

Thomas Jefferson
Noun

(1743-1826) Third president of the United States.

tide table
Noun

chart that shows the exact times for high tides and low tides in a specific area.

traitor
Noun

someone who betrays a person or idea.

venereal disease
Noun

sexually transmitted disease (STD).