Reading List: Brian Frye, Invention of a Slave

Reading list: Brian L. Frye, Invention of
a Slave

On June 10, 1858, the Attorney General of the United States
issued an opinion concluding that a machine invented by a slave could not be
patented, because neither the slave nor the slave owner could make an oath or
affirmation that they were the inventor of the machine, as required by the
Patent Act of 1836. The Attorney General’s opinion caused the Patent Office to
deny at least two patent applications, one of which was filed by Senator
Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who later became the President of the Confederate
States of America. Notably, the Confederate States Patent Act of 1861 provided,
inter alia, that slave owners could patent inventions and discoveries made by
their slaves.
 The Attorney General’s opinion seems to have relied on the
fact that a slave was not a legal person and therefore could not make an oath
or affirmation. But it may also have reflected an ideological dispute over
whether slave owners should be entitled to benefit from the intellectual labor
of their slaves. Ironically, the Attorney General and the Commissioner of
Patents used the ideology of slavery to prevent slave owners from patenting the
inventions of their slaves, and the Confederate States of America ignored the
ideology of slavery in order to enable slave owners to patent the inventions of
their slaves. In this way, a largely forgotten patent claim may offer a unique
perspective on the politics and ideology of slavery in the antebellum United

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