This Day In History: May 5

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On May 5, 1868, Martha Jones of Amelia County, Virginia is believed to be the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent for inventing a machine that husks and shells corn all in one procedure. The Patent No. 77,494 granted to Jones three years after the Civil War for her “Improvement to the Corn Husker, Sheller” was for a device that pulled off and cut up the corn husk and stripped the kernels off the cob, all at the same time, a key technological step in automating agricultural progress. 

Records show Jones was the first Black woman to receive a patent. Little is known about Jones herself. And it is unknown whether other Black women before her were blocked from claiming credit for their inventions since enslaved people and free Blacks could not be citizens of the United States under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision. Therefore, they could not swear to the citizenship oath required by country’s patent law. Some owners allowed their enslaved people to apply for patents, but kept the profits. Black Codes in effect in some states also blocked African Americans from owning property and patents. 

Forty-seven years before Jones, Thomas L. Jennings became the first African American to receive a patent in 1821 in New York City for inventing “dry scouring” to remove dirt and grease from clothing, a precursor to dry cleaning. Twelve years before that, Mary Kies became the first white woman to receive a patent in 1809 for weaving straw with silk and thread, a process adopted by the New England hat making industry. 

Lester E. Denison from Middlesex County, Connecticut is considered the inventor of the first corn shelling machines, receiving a patent in 1839. Subsequent patents, including the one awarded to Jones, were deemed improvements on Denison’s. Jones’ machine also reused and cut up the husks to be used more efficiently as a substitute for hay or straw to feed horses and other animals. Her patent stated that the nutritious husks could also be used for mattresses.