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This Former Slave Invented a Unique Propeller For Steamboats But Wasn’t Allowed to Patent It

Benjamin T. Montgomery, former slave who invented steamboat propeller

Benjamin T. Montgomery was a great inventor, who tried to patent his propeller for steamboats in 1864, but the U.S Patent Office rejected his application because he was Black.
Montgomery was born in London County, Virginia in 1819. From an early age, he demostrated that he was clever. However, he was born a slave, and didn't learn to read and write until much later in life. But his literacy gave him the opportunity to learn land surveying and architectural drafting, and this led to him later becoming a successful engineer and inventor.

A matter of discrimination

Although there were Blacks at the time who managed to patent their inventions like Thomas L. Jennings of New York in 1821, the system wasn't always fair or equal. In some instances to avoid discrimination, Black inventors would use white people as third parties to do it for them.

In the case of Montgomery, however, the circumstances were a lot different and more difficult. Joseph Holt, head of the Patent Office at the time, felt that a free Black man who escaped to the North simply did not have the right to patent an invention.

Slaves weren't considered to be citizens

Another issue back then was that the laws regarding patents changed frequently. For example, one requirement to apply for an American patent was that you had to be citizen of the United States. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decision of Dredd Scott v. Sanford in 1857 determined that slaves and former slaves weren't U.S. citizens.

But Montgomery continued to fight for his civil rights, but even up until his death, he was never awarded a patent for invention. Sadly, he died on May 12, 1877 after a long struggle with a physical disability.