When I was a kid we spent a lot of class time learning about the great American inventors whose ideas created huge industries and brought revolutionary change to entire segments of the world’s peoples. With few exceptions, these inventors were white men with little mention given to blacks, women, and other minorities.
One reason for this was the federal patent acts of 1793 and 1836. The laws prevented enslaved blacks from claiming ownership of any patents for things they may have invented or assisted with. Slaves were property and were owned. Simply put, property cannot own property.
There are many examples of white slave owners claiming the invention of something imagined by one of their slaves and going on to make a fortune from that slave’s idea. One example involves Cyrus McCormick and his slave Jo Anderson. History accords McCormick credit for having invented the reaper, the machine that mechanized the harvesting of grain and was the forerunner of today’s combine. A truer version is that the idea of a harvesting machine began with others, including McCormick’s father, Robert.
The father’s work was continued by Cyrus with the aid of his slave, Jo Anderson. By 1840 the two men had created a working machine that was ready for sale. The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company eventually became the International Harvester Company, that in several forms, still exists today.
Unlike most cases, however, Anderson wasn’t tossed aside by the McCormicks. Prior to the Civil War, he was granted his freedom and even later, a descendant of Cyrus credited Anderson with playing a major part in the invention of the original reaper.
Regarding the ownership of patents, it wasn’t until 1870 that the US government passed a patent law that granted to all Americans, men, women, and those of color, the right of ownership.