Ladas & Parry LLP would like to take this time during Black History Month and Women’s History Month to take a stroll back in time and look at some pioneers in the field of intellectual property law. We value and are enriched by diversity in all of its forms and we salute those who came before us and helped shape the world we have today.
I am deeply proud of the creative accomplishments and professional achievements in the field of intellectual property of women and minorities, who have overcome challenges through perseverance and hard work, while remaining true to their individual culture and backgrounds.
– Bharati Bakshani – Partner, Ladas & Parry LLP
Did you know that the first woman to receive a patent in the United States was a hat maker? Do you know the name of the inventor known as the “Black Edison”? You can learn all this and more as Ladas & Parry LLP celebrates both Black History Month and Women’s History Month by sharing the stories of some of the first African Americans and women to utilize or participate in the U.S. intellectual property system.
MARY KIES: FIRST WOMAN TO RECEIVE A U.S. PATENT
The Patent Act of 1790 made it possible for any man or woman to obtain a patent to protect their inventions. However, during this time in history many states did not allow women to own property separate from their husbands and because of this, many women never patented their inventions. In spite of these challenges, Mary Kies, a hat maker, became the first woman in the United States to receive a patent. She received her patent for her method of weaving straw with silk in 1809. It is said that First Lady Dolly Madison recognized Ms. Kies for keeping the hat industry and economy going (as during that time the U.S. had put an embargo on European goods).
THOMAS L. JENNINGS: FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN TO RECEIVE A U.S. PATENT
On March 3, 1821, decades before the abolition of slavery, the first African American to receive a patent in the United States was Thomas L. Jennings. He was 30 years old when he received a patent (U.S. Patent No. 3306x) for a dry-cleaning process called dry-scouring (an early version of modern dry cleaning) which he developed while running his dry cleaning business.
Because Jennings was born a free man in 1791 in New York City, he was able to own the rights to his invention and keep the profits from it, unlike
African Americans kept as slaves who had no rights to their inventions. It is said that Jennings, who was involved in the growing abolition movement,
used his money to help the cause and to obtain the freedom of family members who were slaves.
JUDY W. REED: FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO RECEIVE A U.S. PATENT
Easing the burden of housework was behind many of the inventions made by women, including the hand operated dough kneader and roller (U.S. Patent No. 305,474 on September 23, 1884) invented by Judy Reed. Ms. Reed is believed to be the first African American woman to receive a patent. Though Reed’s name appears on her patent, many black female inventors at the time were afraid to have their name associated with their inventions because of the likelihood that white people would refuse to buy a product they knew was invented by a black woman.
SARAH E. GOODE, AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN RECEIVES U.S. PATENT ON JULY 14, 1885
Not long after Judy Reed received her patent, another African American woman, Sarah E. Goode, received a patent (U.S. Patent No. 322,177) on July 14, 1885 for a cabinet bed. Accounts of Goode’s early life are murky: some say she was born a slave and others suggest she was born a free woman. What is known about her is that at some point in her life, she married and moved with her husband, a carpenter, to Chicago, Illinois where they owned a furniture store. It was during this time that she invented a folding bed that could be formed into a desk when not in use. Sarah’s invention was a practical one that served an underrepresented population of customers, who lived in small apartments where space for furniture was scarce.
GRANVILLE T. WOODS, THE “BLACK EDISON” OBTAINED NUMEROUS PATENTS IN HIS LIFETIME
Granville T. Woods, known as the “Black Edison”, was an engineer who developed many important electrical inventions. He was born in 1856 and attended school until he was 10 years old after which he began working in a machine shop fixing railroad equipment. At age 20 it is said that he attended a technical college where he studied mechanical and electrical engineering. After having difficulty finding a job, he would eventually start his own
Railway Telegraphy (U.S. Patent No. 388,803), is considered one of his most important inventions. This invention made communication possible between trains and train depots. Thomas Edison, who claimed to be the creator of this invention, filed a lawsuit. Woods challenged his claim and won. Afterwards, Edison offered him a position in his company Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods did not accept the offer. Over the course of his life, Granville Woods was granted over 35 patents mostly for railway communication and technology.
ELIJAH J. McCOY, HIS INVENTIONS WERE THE “REAL McCOY”
Elijah J. McCoy was an African American inventor who obtained over 50 patents in his lifetime. McCoy was born in Canada in 1844, the son of slaves who had escaped from Kentucky. When he was very young McCoy had shown mechanical aptitude and so at age 15 his parents sent him to Scotland to learn mechanical engineering. After completing his training abroad, he returned to the U.S.
Though McCoy was very qualified, doors to jobs as an engineer were shut to him because of his race. Eventually he took a job working for the Michigan Central Railroad where he shoveled coal into train engines and applied oil to the moving parts. It was doing this sort of work that he figured out solutions to the problems trains had with keeping parts lubricated. On July 23, 1872 he patented his invention of a lubricating device for steam engines (U.S. Patent No.129,843). This device became a very important part of the industry and there were many who tried to imitate McCoy’s invention. So sought after was this device that owning the real one was referred to as having “the real McCoy.”
It is also worth noting that in 2012, the USPTO opened the Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Detroit, Michigan.