Blair Patents His First Seed Planter

Henry Blair’s corn and cotton seed planters helped advance the agricultural revolution of the early nineteenth century in the United States at a time when most African Americans were enslaved and when free blacks were fighting for the basic rights of citizenship. Until his first patent in 1834, only one other African American inventor—Thomas L. Jennings—had applied for and received a patent.

Summary of Event

Born in Montgomery County, Maryland, and living and working at a time and place hostile to people of African American descent, Henry Blair is the only inventor described as “a colored man” in the records of the U.S. Patent Office. His corn seed planter, patented on October, 14, 1834, allowed farmers to plant more corn in a shorter period of time. The corn planter, which was pulled by horses or oxen, dropped individual kernels of corn into furrows, which were then automatically covered with earth as a farmer walked behind the planter. Blair’s cotton planter, patented two years later in 1836, was equally instrumental to the agricultural revolution that began in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Seed planters
Agriculture;seed planters
Blair, Henry
African Americans;inventors
Inventions;seed planters
[kw]Blair Patents His First Seed Planter (Oct. 14, 1834)
[kw]Patents His First Seed Planter, Blair (Oct. 14, 1834)
[kw]First Seed Planter, Blair Patents His (Oct. 14, 1834)
[kw]First Seed Planter, Blair Patents His (Oct. 14, 1834)
[kw]Seed Planter, Blair Patents His First (Oct. 14, 1834)
[kw]Planter, Blair Patents His First Seed (Oct. 14, 1834)
Seed planters
Agriculture;seed planters
Blair, Henry
African Americans;inventors
Inventions;seed planters
[g]United States;Oct. 14, 1834: Blair Patents His First Seed Planter[1880]
[c]Inventions;Oct. 14, 1834: Blair Patents His First Seed Planter[1880]
[c]Agriculture;Oct. 14, 1834: Blair Patents His First Seed Planter[1880]
[c]Science and technology;Oct. 14, 1834: Blair Patents His First Seed Planter[1880]
Jennings, Thomas L.

It was earlier thought that Blair was the first African American to receive a patent, but Thomas L. Jennings, a free black tailor living in New York City, patented a dry-cleaning process in 1821. Along with the products of other inventors, such as John Deere (who invented a steel plow that allowed for the cultivation of the midwestern prairies), Blair’s planters led to significant increases in American farm production.

The invention of the cotton gin had an ironic effect. It was designed to save human labor; however, by making it much cheaper to separate seeds from cotton, the gin made cotton-growing more profitable and thereby had the effect of requiring more human labor—typically slave labor—to grow and pick cotton.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

Little is known about Blair’s early life, but it is assumed that he was a free man, as enslaved people were not allowed to obtain patents. It is also evident that he could not read or write because he signed his patents with an X. His experiences in antebellum American society (before the Civil War) likely were similar to those of many other free blacks who lived in the South: plagued by continual fear and intimidation. The percentage of free blacks in the antebellum South actually declined during the period between 1815 and 1860. During the colonial period and immediately following the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) American Revolution (1775-1783);and slavery[Slavery] , many enslaved Americans either were granted freedom by their masters (who sometimes felt guilty about their ownership of slaves, given the egalitarian rhetoric of the revolutionary period) or were able to purchase their own freedom as well as the freedom of family members.

After the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, however, the changing agricultural economy made it more difficult for slaves to gain their freedom. The cotton gin made it economically feasible to separate the seeds from raw cotton and allowed for more and cheaper cotton to reach the world’s textile Textile industry;and cotton[Cotton] markets. Cloth manufacturers in England and the northeastern United States could process as much cotton as the American South could produce. Because slaves were the primary source of labor in the southern states, they were also in greater demand. When the cost of slave labor increased, people who had earlier been able to purchase their own freedom were priced out of their own “market.” Masters were less willing to let go of their slaves, whose monetary value increased throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

The free blacks who lived in the South during this period faced increasing dangers of enslavement or re-enslavement. Unscrupulous slave catchers often abducted free blacks and claimed that they were escaped slaves. Restrictions on the movements of free blacks during the antebellum period also grew more severe. Particularly after the planned Denmark Vesey Vesey, Denmark slave rebellion of 1822 in South Carolina and the Nat Turner Rebellion (1831) in Virginia, slave owners (and their supporters in the government) required free blacks to carry manumission papers and to register with local authorities. The education of enslaved people was prohibited. The inability to acquire an education made it difficult for African Americans to enter and progress in the professions; however, the lack of an education did not prevent Blair from capitalizing on his knowledge of the mechanical arts. Fearing that free blacks might aid in the escape of slaves to the northern states or Canada, the Maryland Maryland;black codes legislature passed an 1841 act that prohibited their possession of abolitionist literature; conviction under the act carried a prison sentence of ten to twenty years.

It is often assumed that slavery in Maryland was not as harsh as in states of the Deep South. Some point to the presence of the Quakers (particularly along the state’s eastern shore) as a factor that might have lessened the severity of the institution. According to Frederick Douglass, a leading abolitionist from Maryland who escaped from slavery, the institution was just as harsh in Maryland as it was in other states. Even though the physical climate and work conditions were not as difficult as in the Deep South, enslaved people and free blacks in Maryland suffered from the constant fear that they or their family members could be sold to the cotton plantations of Mississippi and Alabama. For abolitionist Harriet Tubman, also a Maryland resident and a slave, these fears became reality. When she was twenty-eight years old she learned that she and other members of her family were to be transported to the South. She had been married for five years to John Tubman, a free black man. After an unsuccessful first try at escape, she eventually escaped to the North and then returned many times to the South to help more than three hundred slaves escape as well.

It is not clear why Blair continued to reside in Maryland, given its increasingly hostile and unsafe environment. Like many free blacks in the antebellum South, he may have had enslaved family members in the area. In any case, he was able to continue his work as an inventor while living under conditions that required constant vigilance and care.

The information that is available about Blair and other African American inventors is largely based upon the work of Henry Baker Baker, Henry , an assistant patent examiner in the federal Patent Office during the late nineteenth century. At the turn of the century, the Patent Office sent letters to patent attorneys, newspaper editors, and prominent African Americans to gather information about black inventors. Baker compiled the information and followed leads, publishing his results in the four-volume work The Colored Inventor: A Record of Fifty Years (1913). His research was used to select inventions for exhibition at the New Orleans Cotton Centennial in 1890, the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the Atlanta Southern Exposition in 1895. Atlanta, Georgia;Southern Exposition


Henry Blair’s work as an inventor in antebellum Maryland marks him as both an innovative mechanic and a brave human being. Laboring as a successful farmer in a social climate that engendered fear and anxiety in both free and enslaved African Americans, he was able to produce and receive patents for two important inventions: a corn planter in 1834 and a cotton planter in 1836. In doing so, he was only the second African American to have registered a patent in the United States.

Blair pioneered the way for other African Americans such as George Washington Carver Carver, George Washington , an agricultural scientist who worked during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, as his inventions, and those of others such as Eli Whitney, Cyrus McCormick, and John Deere, helped American farmers increase production and efficiency. Blair’s contributions are all the more remarkable because he worked and succeeded in a repressive, prejudiced, and discriminatory social climate.

Further Reading

  • Baker, Henry E. The Colored Inventor. 1913. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1969. A patent examiner’s research into African American patent holders. Brief at twelve pages.
  • Sluby, Patricia Carter. The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. American patent examiner and agent Sluby explores the history of African American patent holders and their inventions. Includes discussion of Henry Blair.
  • Weber, Gustavus A. The Patent Office: Its History, Activities, and Organization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1924. A general history of the U.S. Patent Office.
  • Whitman, T. Stephen. Price of Freedom: Slavery and Freedom in Baltimore and Early National Maryland. New York: Routledge, 2000. The history of slaves and free blacks in antebellum Baltimore and Maryland.

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