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The Master, the Slave, and the Patent Laws
A Vignette of the 1850ís

by Norman O. Forness

       In histories of technology, inventors normally play a principal, if not a heroic, role. But not every society has permitted such prominence to all men of creative talent, and antebellum America was one such place. Thus, the following vignette has no winners, though at least two losers. The leading role was played by one of the losers, Oscar J. E. Stuart, a prominent lawyer of Pike County, Mississippi. Supporting roles fell to Jacob Thompson, also a Mississippian, who served as secretary of the interior in the administration of President James Buchanan; Joseph Holt, commissioner of patents, then an officer within the Interior Department; and Jeremiah S. Black, Buchananís Attorney General. Ironically, the role least prominent, though most crucial, was that of the other loser, Ned, the Negro slave who invented the machine around which this story develops. Of Ned we know little except that he possessed considerable ingenuity and that he belonged to Oscar J. E. Stuart. On August 25, 1857, Stuart wrote Secretary Thompson to inquire about the prospect of receiving for himself a patent on an invention by his slave, Ned. Stuart acknowledged that the law required the government to issue a patent only to a person who could swear that the invention was the contrivance of his own brain. Legally, said Stuart, a master owned both the manual and intellectual fruits of this slaveís labor. Therefore, if he added to the regular procedure of patent application an affidavit explaining the circumstances, could the patent be issued to him as the master of the slave-inventor?   


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June 2001