Surely, scientist Madame C.J. Walker, astronomer Benjamin Banneker, and agricultural chemist George Washington Carver come to mind as legendary African American inventors. They are rightly celebrated as influential contributors to a rich culture of innovation, but they represent a great number of unnamed inventors—brilliant African American men and women who developed efficient processes and technologies as slaves without rights to patents and profits.
Did you know that the first African-American man to acquire a patent was abolitionist leader Thomas Jennings, the inventor of “dry-scouring,” a dry-cleaning process that utilizes solvents to clean clothes?
Jennings was a respected tailor and an owner of a prominent clothing shop in New York City. He began researching cleaning methods after receiving frequent requests for advice on delicate garment care. He experimented with cleaning solutions and stain-removal processes, eventually developing the process known as “dry-scouring.”
Jennings received a patent for this process in 1821; however, the US patent laws of 1793 posed significant challenges and controversy for the 30-year-old inventor. Legally, the “fruits of the labor of the slave” were owned by the master. Slaves during this time were prohibited from patenting inventions, which became the property of their owners. Fortunately, Jennings was born free, and so able to secure rights to his dry-cleaning process. Later, the US Congress would pass a law to allow slaves patent rights.
Jennings put his first profits toward purchasing family members from slave owners and contributing to abolitionist efforts. He would become the assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a meeting that would significantly impact the road to freedom. He continued to lead the movement until the end of his life. Jennings would die just years before the abolishment of slavery.
There are challenges to every idea and obstacles to every success. Sometimes, they are vast and complex. Thomas Jennings represents the courage and resilience of a true thinker.