Today, a look at black American inventors before
the Civil War. 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.
The slave population in the
American colonies reached a maximum of a
quarter-million in 1754. But it dropped off as we
approached, and fought, the Revolutionary war. For
a while, people thought slavery might die out
But technology intervened. Eli Whitney patented the cotton
gin in 1793. Suddenly we could turn a profit on
this terribly labor-intensive crop. From then until
the Civil War the slave population increased to the
astonishing level of 4,000,000.
The grand irony of all this is that the person who
provided Whitney with the key idea for his gin was
himself a slave, known to us only by the name Sam.
Sam's father had solved the critical problem of
removing seeds from cotton by developing a kind of
comb to do the job. Whitney's cotton gin simply
mechanized this comb.
The technologies of the Old South, of course,
flowed from the people who were doing the jobs that
had to be done. The story of Sam was repeated in
different ways over and over. Slaves invented
technology, but they couldn't patent it. In 1858,
the United States Attorney General -- a man named
Black -- ruled that, since slaves were property,
their ideas were also the property of their
masters. They had no rights to patents on their
So our knowledge of slave contributions comes to us
in anecdotal forms. The paper trail is very thin.
For example, various claims are made about the
contributions of a slave named Jo Anderson who
worked with Cyrus
McCormick on the development of his reaper.
It's hard to find out where Anderson ended and
McCormick began. However, author Robert Hayden
finds a better-documented case in Southern
newspaper reports during the Civil War. They tell
about one of Jefferson
Davis's slaves who invented a new screw
propeller for steam-driven ships. He couldn't
patent it, of course; but it served the South
during the war that was fought to keep him a slave.
The first patent to a black freeman was given in
1834 to Henry Blair for his new seed-planter. But
records of patents, even to freed blacks, are rare
before the Civil War. For one thing, black
inventors usually put their patents in the name of
a white lawyer. That improved chances for
acceptance of their invention.
The lesson in this is that disenfranchised
minorities look unproductive because they have no
franchise. Historians of technology are just
beginning to see that the slave inventors we know
about are only the tip of a very large iceberg.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hayden, R. C., Black American Inventors.
Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1972.
James, P.P., Enslaved Inventors, Hidden
Contributors. The Real McCoy: African-American
Invention and Innovation. 1619-1930,
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press,
1989, Chapter Three.
For more on this business, see Episode 1076.
This was a very early episode in this series. As it turns out, the
story of Whitney getting his cotton gin idea from Sam is probably
apocryphal. For a more recent account of the develop of the cotton
gin, see Episode 2494.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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