The invention of a slave mechanic named Ned, from Pike County, Mississippi, tested the patent system by provoking the federal government to articulate its position on the legality of his invention and the rights to it.
Ned invented a cotton scrapper that enabled 1 man and 2 horses to complete the work of 2 men, 4 horses, 2 single scrappers, and 2 plows. When Ned’s owner wrote the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to secure a patent for the invention in his name, as Ned’s master, the matter was referred to then U.S. Attorney General Jeremiah Black, who on June 10, 1858, rendered an opinion that an invention by a slave “cannot, in the present state of the law, be patented.”
The Attorney General reasoned that since a slave was not a citizen; the slave could not enter into a contract. Therefore, any invention of a slave could not be formally recognized by the patent office. The opinion stood until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments.
Ned’s owner went ahead with his scheme, manufacturing and selling the double cotton scrapper. Ned probably died as a slave, never reaping rewards for his invention.
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Source, The African-American Book of Values, Edited by Steven Barboza, Doubleday.