Monday, February 22, 2021

Inventing Modern Agriculture, Black History Month Series--Ned

For Ned, the inventor of an effective and innovative cotton scraper, the path from invention to patent led to foundational questions of legality and citizenship in early America. An enslaved blacksmith on a plantation in Pike County, Mississippi, Ned created a novel machine that could “scrape both sides of the cotton ridge at the same time, and plough out the middles or spaces between the ridges.” In 1857, Ned’s enslaver sought a patent in Ned’s name, seeing commercial opportunity in both the invention itself and the precedent of claiming ownership over the inventions of enslaved innovators. 
The Patent Commissioner required a sworn affidavit from Ned declaring that he was both the inventor and a citizen of the United States. Yet, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, decided earlier that year, the Supreme Court had determined that the rights of citizenship did not extend to Americans of African descent, whether enslaved or free. A non-citizen by law, Ned was ineligible for a patent, according to the U.S. Attorney General. This precedent limited innovation opportunities for Black Americans until the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. 
Ned’s motivations, process, and hopes for his invention are unknown. But descriptions of the cotton scraper itself reveal his ingenuity and artisan skills. Ned’s story is representative of both the contribution of enslaved people to the creation of modern America and the potential for progress lost to the inhumane institution of slavery.