Did you know there is a bit of a debate over who was the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent? Judy Woodford Reed, Sarah E. Goode, and Miriam Benjamin are all credited with that feat, though there may have been others before them who did not reveal their race or gender. Learn more about each of these women below.
Judy Woodford Reed
The debate begins with Judy Woodford Reed (1826-1905). She was issued patent 305,474 for a “dough kneader and roller” on September 23, 1884. Her invention was for “improved design of rollers that helped the dough to mix more evenly while it was kept covered and protected.”
The patent is the only documentation that exists of her life. Historians have been able to piece together her birth and death dates, but little else is known about her—not even a photo remains. Judy was a former slave who likely could not read or write, as she signed the patent with an X instead of her name. Her attorney wrote her name on the patent for her, using her initials, J.W. Reed. And this is where the controversy comes in. Because Judy didn’t actually sign the patent with her name, some wonder if it was technically fully executed.
Sarah E. Goode
Those who follow the line of thought that Judy Woodford Reed’s patent wasn’t fully executed, credit Sarah E. Goode with being the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent. She was issued a patent (322,177) for the cabinet bed on July 14, 1885, which was a pre-cursor to the better-known Murphy Bed.
Sarah was born into slavery in 1855 in Toledo, Ohio, and was described as being of mixed White and Black ancestry. She was granted her freedom at age 10 when the Civil War ended.
Sara was the daughter of a carpenter who married a “stair builder.” Later in life, she sold furniture in Chicago. Her invention came about when she heard customers from New York mention that space was at a premium in the city thanks to new laws that limited the height of buildings. That meant most tenements were only around 25×100 feet in size. Sarah’s creativity resulted in a fold out bed that when retracted, looked and functioned like a roll-top desk complete with compartments for storing pens, ink and stationery.
Though only a few sources credit Miriam Benjamin (1861-1947) with being the first, she is widely held to be the second (or perhaps third) Black woman to be granted a patent. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, as a free Black woman. Miriam attended high school in Boston and eventually became a teacher in Washington D.C. before attending law school at Howard University and becoming a “solicitor of patents.”
Her first patent was for the gong and signal chair for hotels. As a frequent traveler, Miriam noticed that many hotels and restaurants seemed overstaffed for the number of customers needing service at any moment. This resulted in her devising a chair with a gong and signal attached meant to “reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages.” To summon a server or other attendant, a patron would press a button on the back of the chair, which would send a signal to the server as well as illuminate a light so the server could see which guest needed help.
Later on, Miriam’s system was adopted by the United States House of Representatives to summon pages and was the precursor to flight attendant call buttons in airplanes.
Miriam went on to patent other inventions and is believed to be one in the same with composer E.B. Miriam who wrote marches, including “The Boston Elite Two Step” and “The American Bugle Call,” which was adopted as the campaign song for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign.