Inventors and Patents From the City of Montgomery
Inventions and patents are often associated with the city of Montgomery, and this article features some of the city’s most famous residents. Learn about John Birch, Henry Baker, James Ritty, and Benjamin T. Montgomery, and explore how their innovations impacted the city.
Benjamin T. Montgomery
In the late 18th century, the city of Montgomery, Alabama was home to an African-American inventor, Benjamin T. Montgomery. Montgomery was born as a slave in Loudon County, Virginia, and later sold to a Mississippi planter. His former master, Jefferson Davis, was the future president of the Confederacy. Montgomery was given responsibilities at the plantation, including running a general store. He eventually learned English and land surveying and used his skills to plan the construction of levees.
He also invented a patented propeller for steam boats. His invention was widely acclaimed. Boston Magazine even hailed him as one of the city’s greatest citizens. Montgomery’s son, Isaiah, founded a “black town” called Mound Bayou. He died at age 77.
Montgomery spent his early years working on a plantation with the Davis brothers, where he learned about land surveying and architectural drafting. His inventions included a steamboat propeller and an improved paddle wheel for river steamboats. His work with steamboats helped to make the world more convenient. In the 1850s, Montgomery and his fellow inventors made life easier for the people who used his steamboats.
Montgomery’s family helped him learn how to build a steamboat. They taught him land surveying, techniques for flood control, architecture, machine repair, and steamboat navigation. Montgomery also learned how to create a propeller that could cut into the water at various angles. This propeller helped steamboats navigate in shallow waters. He was also an excellent mechanic. This knowledge helped him create the propeller that made it easier to navigate.
His inventions were not patentable, however. Because Montgomery was a slave, he was not allowed to file patents for his inventions. The next year, he became a Mississippi Justice of Peace. A year later, Montgomery became the first black official in the state. In 1870, the cotton he grew at the plantation was named best in the world at the International Exposition.
Henry Baker, Inventors and Patentees From the City of Montgomery is the first book to highlight the contributions of African Americans in the invention field. Baker studied law at Howard University and worked as a copyist at the United States Patent Office. He noticed that there was little information published about African American inventors and began a passion project to promote them. This project spanned four volumes and was a massive undertaking.
The list contains the names of more than 1,000 African American inventors. Many of the entries came from Henry Baker’s work as an assistant patent examiner for the U.S. Patent Office during the late nineteenth century. Henry sent letters to prominent African Americans and recorded their replies. He also followed up on leads and helped select inventions for expositions in the United States.
Innovator Benjamin Montgomery was born into slavery in 1819. He was taught reading and writing by his owners. His owner later put him in charge of the plantation’s shipping and purchasing operations. He later invented a propellor to help boats navigate shallow water. Though the propellor was not patented, his former owner eventually bought his plantation.
Other notable individuals from Montgomery include Augustus Durner, an inventor of the disc sharpener. This invention received local press attention, and his patent was granted in 1836. Other notable inventors of the city include John Baker and Allen S. Baker. During this period, inventing was a family pastime. In the early 1900s, the Baker brothers also worked on steel supports for windmills.
James Ritty was an inventor who teamed up with his brother, John, who was a more mechanically inclined man. They came up with an idea for a propeller counter that would record how many times a propeller turned. Unfortunately, James Ritty was never able to bring their invention to the market. In fact, he died of heart trouble at the age of thirty-six.
James Ritty was born in 1836 in Dayton, Ohio. His father was a physician, and his mother was a housewife. He grew up in Ohio, and the family remained there his entire life. In 1879, Ritty went to Europe, where he saw an instrument that measured the revolutions of a propeller. Upon returning, he thought about the machine and how he could use the principles for his business.
A saloon named after James Ritty was originally located on South Jefferson Street in Dayton. The building had a previous use as a girls’ school. He was intrigued by the propeller counter, and wondered whether it could be used for cash transactions. His idea was to develop a machine that would record sales so that an employer can verify sales and audit them.
Another invention credited to James Ritty is the cash register. The first cash register didn’t have a cash drawer, and it was crude and inaccurate. James Ritty filed his patent in 1879 for his invention. He later went on to work for General Motors, and invented the electric self-starter for a Cadillac.
James Ritty started out as a saloon owner. He made a living by taking in employees, but the business failed. His employees were not honest, and he became a victim of theft. Then, in 1879, he became fascinated with a propeller counter in a ship. This inspired him to patent a cash register that would be used to record cash transactions. However, Ritty’s cash register failed to thrive. He was overwhelmed with running two businesses and eventually sold his business.
Benjamin Montgomery was one of the most influential African-American inventors in the history of Mississippi. Born in slavery in Virginia, Montgomery was sold to the brother of Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy. While working as a mechanic and general manager at his Mississippi plantation, Benjamin Montgomery was inspired to learn and use his education to improve his lot in life. He learned to read and write and was eventually given the responsibility of managing the plantation’s supply and shipping department.
Montgomery later improved the steam-operated propellor of a steamboat, which was used for propulsion in shallow water. The steam-operated propeller had a lower weight and was more efficient in its use of power. However, he did not receive the patent for his invention, and his brother and son-in-law, Joseph Davis, tried to patent it in his name, but the attorney general rejected their application. Nevertheless, Jefferson Davis, who was then a slave-owner, supported legislation to allow slave-made machinery to be patented.
After the Civil War, Benjamin Montgomery was one of the most successful cotton planters in Mississippi, owning thousands of acres of land. He also established a market center in Montgomery, Mississippi, with a store, several warehouses, and a steam-driven cotton gin.
Montgomery also learned to draw architectural plans and served as a clerk at his father’s plantation. He also assisted with the construction of large buildings on the plantation, and he helped build an elaborate garden cottage. Ultimately, he became the first African-American official in the state of Mississippi. He also opened a general store along with his son. Montgomery was largely self-taught and received no formal education, though he learned many of the skills he needed to be successful in his field.