Benjamin T. Montgomery Invented A Steamboat Propeller: African-American inventors have held their own in various fields of endeavor from the dawn of time, and have made numerous contributions to make the world a better place. African Americans invented and innovated whether they were slaves or free, yet they were frequently denied the right to copyright their ideas. In the instance of Benjamin T. Montgomery, this was the case. Montgomery attempted to patent his improved steamboat propeller in 1864, but the US Patent Office rejected his application due to his enslavement.
Montgomery was born in 1819 as an enslaved person in Loudoun County, Virginia. He learned to read and write at a young age while working as a companion to his owner’s son, according to sources. However, by 1837, he had been sold in a slave sale to Joseph Davis, the brother of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The two brothers lived just south of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they shared enormous plantations.
Montgomery was able to access the plantation library while working on the Davis brothers’ plantation, where he refined his literacy skills and began learning land surveying and architectural drafting. But it was his outstanding work with machines that cemented his place in history. Montgomery invented a large number of machines, according to historians, however, the precise number is unknown. The steamboat propeller he created for shallow waters in the 1850s was his most well-known invention.
“Steamboats supplied food and other needs along often-shallow waterways connecting settlements at the time, thus this technology was very valuable. “Life-sustaining supplies would be delayed for days or weeks if the boats became stuck,” Smithsonian stated of his concept.
Despite the novelty of his innovation, when he applied for a patent in 1864, he was denied because he was an enslaved Black man.
Surprisingly, the Patent Office did not require race to be considered while applying for a patent during this time period, but Black inventors were forced to rely on White third parties to get patents in order to avoid discrimination. Despite the fact that Thomas L. Jennings of New York was the first known Black inventor to obtain a patent in 1821, Black innovators typically experienced discrimination. Patent laws were subject to change at any time. It used to be that anyone seeking an American patent had to be a citizen of the United States. Non-citizens have been granted American patents in the past.
However, the infamous Supreme Court decision of Dredd Scott v. Sanford in 1857, which stated that all people of African descent, whether free or enslaved, were not United States citizens and thus had no right to sue in federal court, may have complicated the issues of many Black inventors, including Montgomery. This was applied to patent law by Joseph Holt, the chief of the Patent Office at the time, who came from Kentucky. Montgomery, in other words, was not a citizen and hence could not patent his invention.
In 1859, Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph attempted to patent Montgomery’s innovation, but they were denied since they did not invent it. Slaveowners protested at the time but to no avail. In 1859, a senator proposed a bill that would have allowed slaveowners to patent their slaves’ discoveries, but it did not become law. The new Confederate States of America founded its own patent office following the Civil War in 1860, however, reports claim that no one actually filed a patent with it because the war was still going on and people were too busy fighting.
After the plantation of Joseph Davis was burned to the ground by Union forces on June 24, 1862, Montgomery, a merchant and business manager, took over the property. However, the following year, he went to Cincinnati to exhibit his propeller at the Western Sanitary Fair. During the Civil War, people in the North used the Fairs to raise money. Montgomery felt unwelcome there because of the segregation and bigotry, so he returned after the Civil War and bought Joseph’s property from Joseph and his brother in late 1866.
But he had to do it in secret since, despite the fact that slaves were now free, selling land to Black people in Mississippi was still illegal. Joseph Davis sold the property to Montgomery for $300,000 in gold with a 6% interest rate at the end of the day. Davis Bend, an all-Black hamlet made up of former enslaved African Americans, became known. Montgomery was appointed as a justice of the peace for Davis Bend in 1867, making him the first formerly enslaved person in Mississippi to hold political office. Davis Bend’s surrounding white neighbors, however, came up to suppress the settlement.
Davis Bend’s situation was made worse by a poor harvest and flooding. Montgomery was struggling to pay his old owners, the Davis brothers, the yearly interest at this point. Joseph Davis wanted to stop paying interest, but his brother, Jefferson, was not having it. When Joseph died in 1870, Jefferson reclaimed the farm from Montgomery.
Montgomery was hurt while dismantling a house four times in four years. He died on May 12, 1877, after never fully recovering. His inventions, however, were presented at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, a year before he died. Some of his innovations were also on display during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. His sons, William Thornton Montgomery and Isaiah Thornton Montgomery would rise to prominence in Mississippi politics and business.