Author: Ralph H. Cathcart | Co-Author: Jennifer Kwon | Practices: | Tags: , ,


Ladas & Parry LLP is pleased to honor both Black History Month and the upcoming Women’s History Month, to highlight pioneers in the field of Intellectual Property. We value and are enriched by diversity in all of its forms and salute those who help shape the world and to shine a light on those pioneers who sometimes receive little or no credit.

“I am both pleased and humbled to have been asked to pay tribute to the remarkable IP pioneers before me, who overcame significant obstacles to excel even when the playing field was not even. Honoring these individuals enriches our history and sheds light on the truth and the magnitude of the contributions made by these great men and women.” Ralph H. Cathcart – Partner, Ladas & Parry LLP


Thomas L. Jennings (1791 – 1856) 

Mr. Jennings was the first known African American to receive a patent in the United States on March 3, 1821 (U.S. Patent No. 3306x). By doing so, he helped pave the way for future inventors of color to successfully obtain ownership in the exclusive rights to their inventions. Mr. Jennings lived in New York City and worked as a tailor and dry cleaner. In 1821 he invented an early method of dry cleaning called “dry-scouring”. He did this four years prior to Jean Baptiste Jolly of Paris, France, who invented a similar technique for which many people have confusedly credited as the first dry cleaning process.

At the time of Mr. Jennings’ invention, most African Americans were viewed as chattel and could not assert legal rights or ownership. Indeed, the U.S. Patent Laws at the time provided that “The slave master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave, both manual and intellectual”. A literal interpretation meant that while slaves couldn’t legally own their ideas or inventions at that time, no such prohibition applied to Mr. Jennings, who was a free man. Mr. Jennings used profits from his invention to purchase the freedom of the rest of his relatives. He was an ardent abolitionist and served as the assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the People of Color, which met in Philadelphia, PA in June 1931.

Alexander Miles (1838 – 1918) 

Alexander Miles resided in Minnesota when he designed an important safety feature improvement for elevators, namely, automatic doors. At the time, elevator passengers had to manually open and close the doors to the elevators, absent an attendant. This was both difficult and dangerous and many people were accidentally injured or fell to their death in the elevator shaft. Mr. Miles patented an invention on October 11, 1887 (U.S. Patent No. 371,207) which allowed for both of the doors to close simultaneously, thus preventing horrific accidents. The utility of this invention is immediately apparent as today’s elevators still employ a similar technology. Mr. Miles was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

George Carruthers (1939 – Present)

George Carruthers was born in 1939 in Cincinnati, Ohio and is an outstanding and accomplished astrophysicist. A significant portion of his career was spent employed as an astrophysicist for the Space Science Division of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. Among his many inventions, he is perhaps most famous for creating the ultraviolet camera/spectrograph patented on November 11, 1969 (U.S. Patent No. 3,478,216) as an “Image Converter for Detecting Electromagnetic Radiation Especially In Short Wave Lengths”. During a 1970 rocket flight the invention helped prove that molecular hydrogen existed in interstellar space. During the Apollo 16 mission to the moon in 1972, Carruthers’ invention was used during a lunar walk by astronauts to observe for the first time the Earth’s atmosphere and pollutants and see UV images of hundreds of stars and distant galaxies. Mr. Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003 and received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama in 2013!

Mark E. Dean (1957 – Present)

Inventor Mark Dean was born in 1957 and worked as a computer scientist/engineer for IBM. He spearheaded a team that designed the hardware interface or Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) System Bus (along with engineer Dennis Moeller) allowing multiple devices like printers, monitors, modems, disk drives and keyboards to be plugged into a computer. This innovation allowed for the personal computer’s prolific use in office and business settings. Mr. Dean also helped develop the first color computer monitor and in 1999 led the team of programmers that created the world’s first gigahertz chip. A prolific inventor, Mr. Dean holds three of IBM’s original nine patents. Currently, he is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at the University of Tennessee. In 1996 he was the first African American to be named an IBM fellow and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997.

Sybilla Masters (c. 1676 – 1720)

Sybilla Masters was born around 1676 in Bermuda and emigrated to the United States in 1687. Because she was not able to receive patents for her inventions in Pennsylvania (then still an American colony), Ms. Masters traveled to London in 1712. In 1715, the first patent in recorded American history was issued by King George I for Ms. Masters’ invention of a process for “Cleaning and Curing The Indian Corn Growing in the several Colonies of America.” The Letters Patent expressly acknowledged that the patent covered “[a] new Invention found out by Sybilla.” However, as a woman, Ms. Masters could not own any property, including intellectual property, and the patent was issued in her husband’s name. Ms. Masters later received a second patent, again in her husband’s name, covering her invention of a process for making hats and bonnets out of straw and palmetto leaves.

Mary Kies (1752 – 1837)

Mary Kies was born in 1752 in Connecticut. The Patent Act of 1790, the first patent statute passed by the newly formed federal government of the United States of America, allowed “any person,” man or woman, to protect his or her invention. Accordingly, on May 5, 1809, Mary Kies became the first woman to apply for and receive a U.S. patent, covering a new method of weaving straw with silk. Using Ms. Kies’ invention, women were able to make cost-effective work bonnets in their own homes, boosting the New England hat making industry. Ms. Kies received a personal letter from First Lady Dolley Madison praising her invention and contribution to the local industry. Unfortunately, the original patent file covering Ms. Kies’ invention was destroyed in a fire at the Patent Office in 1836. In 2006, Ms. Kies was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Dr. Shirley Jackson (1946 – Present) 

Dr. Shirley Jackson was born in 1946 and is a theoretical physicist. Currently, she is the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (better known as RPI) in Troy, New York. Dr. Jackson’s research and experiments spurred advances in telecommunications and development of technologies for the invention of the portable fax, touchtone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, caller id and call waiting while at AT&T Bell Laboratories. In addition to these impressive accomplishments, Dr. Jackson was also the first African American woman to graduate with a PhD from MIT and the first woman and first African American to be named as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Jackson has received innumerable awards, including the National Medal of Science – awarded by President Obama (the nation’s highest honor for contributions in science and technology) in 2016. She has also sat on the Board of Directors of the New York Stock Exchange, IBM Corporation and FEDEX Corporation, among many others. Time Magazine called her “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science”.

Michelle K. Lee (1965 – Present)

In more recent history, on March 13, 2015, after being appointed by President Barack Obama, Michelle K. Lee became the first woman to head the USPTO. She served as Director of the USPTO until June 6, 2017. Ms. Lee was born in 1965 and received her B.S. in electrical engineering and M.S. in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, where she worked in the Artificial Intelligence Lab, and her JD from Stanford Law School. She served as a clerk for Hon. Vaughn R. Walker of the Northern District of California and Hon. Paul R. Michel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and was a partner at Fenwick and West before joining Google in 2003 as Deputy General Counsel. At Google, Ms. Lee served as the first head of Patents and Patent Strategy and was responsible for formulating and implementing the company’s worldwide patent strategy. She is currently a Herman Phleger Visiting Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.

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