Black History Month: Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1856)

Friday, February 05, 2021

Black History Month is the time when the nation reflects on the contributions of African Americans to the rich history and economic prosperity of this country, including the arts, math and science, politics and social justice, entertainment, sports and much more. This year Brooks Kushman P.C. will pay tribute each week by profiling notable, historical, and contemporary African American innovators in medicine, engineering and science.

Thomas L. Jennings is believed to be the first African American to receive a patent in the United States for a process that was the forerunner of modern dry cleaning. Mr. Jennings was a tailor who owned a clothing shop in New York. Because the methods of cleaning certain garments at the time were ineffective, Mr. Jennings began experimenting with different processes. He ultimately created a “dry scouring” method that allowed the garments to “keep their original shape, and have the polish and appearance of new.” In 1820, Mr. Jennings applied for a patent and it was awarded on March 3, 1821 (US Patent 3306x). He was 30 years old.

Black inventors faced tremendous hurdles in obtaining patents. It was more than 30 years after the first white man received a patent that Mr. Jennings was able to obtain a patent because he was born free in New York City. Under U.S. patent laws dating back to 1793, however, enslaved inventors could not obtain patents as their inventions because they were not considered citizens and could not own property.  It wasn’t until 1870, 80 years after the first Patent Act in 1790, that the U.S. government passed a patent law that fully afforded all American men and women, including Blacks, the rights to their own inventions.

Mr. Jennings was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.

Sources: 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/first-african-american-hold-patent-invented-dry-scouring-180971394/;\https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/jennings-thomas-l-1791-1856/;https://www.ipoef.org/thomas-l-jennings/#:~:text=The%20patent%20to%20Jennings%20generated,U.S.%20patent%20laws%20of%201793.&text=In%201861%20patent%20rights%20were,5%20years%20after%20Jennings'%20death; https://www.invent.org/inductees/thomas-jennings; https://www.americanbar.org/groups/intellectual_property_law/publications/landslide/2018-19/march-april/colorblind-patent-system-black-inventors/#34.