It is black history month in the United States. So here’s a question: what do Thomas Jennings and Jin Fuey Moy have in common? They certainly never met each other.
Thomas Jennings (1791-1856) was most likely the first African-American patentee. The patent was granted on March 3, 1821 for a cleaning process called “dry scouring”. He was able to patent his invention because he was a freed man. The patent law at that time would otherwise prohibit granting patents to slaves who were viewed as the property of their master. The first money Thomas Jennings earned from his patent was spent on liberating his family out of slavery and to support the abolitionist cause.
Jin Fuey Moy (梅振魁; Mei Zhenkui, 1862-1924), as I have blogged elsewhere, was the first Chinese to file a patent overseas (1908). Dr. Moy came to the United States in 1875, making his way to New York, where he became a domestic servant and was baptized a Christian. He later attended medical school in the United States.
Both individuals personally struggled in a country that treated people as property, or excluded them from entering the United States. They also actively opposed these oppressive policies – slavery and Chinese exclusion.
Tom Wolfe described the drive to invention as follows: “Is there any more feverish dream of glory in the world, outside of Islam, than the dream of being an inventor? Certainly not in the United States; and probably not in Japan or any other industrial country. An invention is one of those super-strokes, like discovering a platinum deposit, or a gas field, or writing a novel, through which an individual, the hungriest loner, can transform his life overnight, and light up the sky. The inventor needs only one thing which is as free as the air. a terrific idea. ” My former colleague, Lin Xu, translated this as follows: ““ 在伊斯兰教之外的世界里，除了成为一个发明家，还有其他更加光荣和充满激情的梦想吗？在美国，或许同样在日本和其他工业国家，这是不可能的。发明是一种神来之笔，如同探索金矿或天然气田，或写一部小说，通过这些，个人——最饥渴的孤独者——可以一夜之间焕新生命，点亮整个天空。发明家所需要的只有一件事，那件事像空气一样自由，那就是：一个完美的创意。”
When a patent system works well, it should be color-blind, and based on science. It might also “transform” the inventor “overnight.” Perhaps, in so doing, it also empowers them to work towards the betterment of others.