Slaves played significant parts in the design and construction of plantations, churches, mansions, and public buildings.
John Hemings was a slave artisan who managed the woodwork, or joiner’s, shop at Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. Hemings created at least eight items of furniture designed by Jefferson, bringing the president’s sketches to life as chairs, tables, and benches.
Hemings also created fine woodwork such as railings, arches, and window shutters. His work can be seen today at Monticello, and reproductions of some of his work are for sale.
Slaves could not be granted patents for any inventions that they created until after the Civil War. As a result, the efforts of slaves were ignored or, if accepted, credited to their masters.
The first black to be granted a patent is believed to have been Henry Blair. In 1834, he received a patent for a seed planter.
Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), educated in France, was the son of a slave mother and a wealthy white engineer. In 1846, he received a patent for a vacuum evaporator that turned sugarcane juice into white sugar crystals. The invention revolutionized the sugar industry and was adapted for use in the manufacturing of soap, gelatin, glue, and other products.
Lewis Temple (1800-1854) lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he made harpoons for New England whalers. He invented a new kind of harpoon that was called the most important invention in the history of whaling. He did not have a patent for his revolutionary new harpoon and died penniless.
George Washington Carver (1864-1943), born a slave, obtained his degree in agricultural science while working as the college janitor. He devoted his life to researching agricultural products. He is famous for deriving more than 300 products from the peanut and 118 from the sweet potato. He convinced southem farmers to plant peanuts, sweet potatoes, and other crops instead of cotton, which was depleting the soil. He never patented his discoveries.
By 1913, an estimated one thousand patents were issued to blacks for their inventions. Black patent holders included:
Jan Matzeliger: shoe last
Elijah McCoy: lubricating machine
C. B. Brooks: street sweeper G. F. Grant: golf tee
William Purvis: paper bag making machine
G. T. Sampson: clothes dryer
J. R. Winters: fire escape ladder