Unlike black slaves, free blacks prior to the Civil War were entitled to receive patents for their inventions. Though, again, because blacks lacked educational and vocational opportunities, few had the necessary skills or experience to develop their inventive ideas or patent them.
Despite these constraints, there were a number of successful black inventors whose inventions proved useful and important. Thomas Jennings, the first known African American to hold a patent, used the money he earned from his invention to fund abolitionist causes.
Some slaves, who were skilled craftsmen, did create devices or techniques that benefited their masters' enterprises. According to a decision by the federal government in 1858, though, neither the slave nor the slave owner could claim ownership rights to such an invention. In 1870, following the Civil War, the U.S. patent laws were revised so that anyone, regardless of race, could hold a patent. Consequently the number of patents issued to African Americans soared. Click here for a list of some notable African-American inventors.
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