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Mon, 12.27.1819

Benjamin Montgomery, Inventor born

Benjamin Montgomery

*The birth of Benjamin Montgomery is celebrated on this date in 1819. He was a Black inventor.

Born a slave in Loudon, Virginia, Montgomery was "purchased" by  Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy and the South's commander and Chief in the American Civil War, when he was 18. After purchasing his new slave, Davis made Montgomery walk almost 1,000 miles to Mississippi while hitched to a horse. Davis rode in his carriage. 

Montgomery survived this death march and soon became one of Jefferson's favorite possessions. He was knowledgeable and possessed an uncanny ability to understand how things worked. Accordingly, Davis promoted his slave to general manager of the Davis plantation. This allowed Montgomery to access the many books in the Davis library. Montgomery learned to read, how to survey land, and how draft architectural plans. 

In 1847, his son Isaiah Montgomery was born. The elder improved the machinery at the plantation; and supervised and helped build several of the buildings on the Davis plantation. But Montgomery's finest invention was a new type of propeller for steamboats. This propeller allowed the steamboats to navigate the shallow and dangerous waters around the plantations. The propeller blades cut through the shallow waters at any angle with much less resistance than earlier models. What made Montgomery's paddle so special was that instead of thrusting the steamboat through the water, it operated on what was called the canoe paddling principle.

Davis and his brother Joseph noticed his idea.  The Davis brothers decided to patent their slave's invention. One thing that stood in their way was the Supreme Court. Under the "Dredd Scott" decision, slaves were property; therefore, the Court held that no patents could be issued for inventions made by slaves. Once the South seceded from the United States, Jefferson Davis was appointed president of the Confederate States. Davis then decided to change the law prohibiting him from patenting and profiting from his slave's invention. In 1860 the Civil War broke out; Jefferson Davis had more important things to think about than stealing credit for a design created by his slave.

His brother, Peter Montgomery, invented a bookstand that held books upright for easier reading. Montgomery was freed after the war and continued developing even though he couldn't receive a patent for his work. It was not until 1884 that Montgomery finally received credit for his work. He exhibited his propeller at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and 1895 at the Southern Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. The spirit of invention ran in the Montgomery family's blood.  Montgomery's son Isaiah founded the "black town" of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. In the end, Montgomery received his patent, and his invention was well received. Benjamin Montgomery died in 1877.

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