Thomas Jennings, the First African-American Patent Holder

Jennings invented a dry-cleaning process called "dry scouring"

dry cleaner
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Thomas Jennings, a free-born New Yorker who became a leader of the abolitionist movement, made his fortune as the inventor of a dry-cleaning process called “dry scouring.” Born in 1791, Jennings was 30 years old when he received his patent on March 3, 1821 (U.S. patent 3306x), becoming the first African-American inventor to own the rights to his invention. 

Thomas Jennings Patent Holder

Thomas Jennings was born in 1791. He started his career as a tailor and eventually opened one of New York’s leading clothing shops. Inspired by frequent requests for cleaning advice, he began researching cleaning solutions. He was 30 years old when he was granted a patent for a dry cleaning process. Tragically, the original patent was lost in a fire. But Jennings process was known to use solvents to clean clothes and heralded in the process now known as dry cleaning.

The first money Thomas Jennings earned from his patent was spent on the legal fees to purchase his family out of slavery. After that, his income went mostly to his abolitionist activities. In 1831, Thomas Jennings became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, PA.

Luckily for Thomas, he filed his patent at the right time. Under the United States patent laws of 1793 and 1836, both slaves and freedman could patent their inventions. However, in 1857, a slave-owner named Oscar Stuart patented a "double cotton scraper" that was invented by his slave. Historical records only show the real inventor's name as being Ned. Stuart's reasoning for his action was that "the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual".

In 1858, the U.S. patent office changed the patent laws, in response to the Oscar Stuart vs Ned case, in favor of Oscar Stuart. Their reasoning was that slaves were not citizens, and could not be granted patents. But surprisingly in 1861, the Confederate States of America passed a law granting patent rights to slaves. In 1870, the U.S. government passed a patent law giving all American men including blacks the rights to their inventions.

Later Life of Thomas Jennings

His daughter, Elizabeth, an activist like her father, was the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit after being thrown off a New York City streetcar while on the way to church. With support from her father, she sued the Third Avenue Railroad Company for discrimination and won. The day after the verdict, the company ordered its cars desegregated.

Thomas Jennings died in 1859, a few years before the practiced he so reviled—slavery—was abolished.