Benjamin Bradley was born around 1830 as a slave in Maryland. He was able to read and write. He was put to work in a printing office and at the age of 16 began working with scrap he found, modeling it into a small ship. He continued improving on his creation until he had built a working steam engine, made from a piece of a gun-barrel, pewter, pieces of round steel and some nearby junk. Those around him were amazed by his high level of intelligence that he was placed in a new job, this time at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Despite enjoying his job with the Naval Academy, Bradley had not forgotten his steam engine creation. He used the money he had been able to save from his job as well as the proceeds of the sale of his original engine (to a Naval Academy student) to build a larger model. Eventually, he was able to finish an engine large enough to drive the first steam-powered warship at 16 knots. At the time, because he was a slave, he was unable to secure a patent for his engine. His master did, however, allow him to sell the engine and he used that money to purchase his freedom.
Bradley was paid in full for his work, but the money he had made went to his Master, who allowed Bradley to keep five dollars a month for himself.
Bradley had not forgotten his work with steam engines. He saved the money he earned, and sold his original model engine to a student at the Academy. Bradley then used his savings to develop and build an engine large enough to run the first steam-powered warship. Because he was a slave, Bradley was not allowed to get a patent for the engine he developed. He was, however, able to sell the engine and keep the money, which he used to buy his freedom. He lived the rest of his life as a free man.
Benjamin Bradley’s name appears in few books, perhaps because he was not able to get a patent for his work. Just as there was disagreement over the issue of slavery, there was also disagreement over whether a slave should be allowed to hold a patent. Some people said anyone who came up with an original idea should be allowed to patent it. It should not matter whether that person was free or a slave. Others said that, because he, a slave, was his or her master’s property, anything that a slave produced, including ideas, belonged to the master.
In 1857, however, a slave owner named Oscar Stewart applied for a patent on something one of his slaves had invented. Stewart argued that he owned all the results of his slave’s labor, whether that work had been manual. Despite the laws, the Patent Office agreed. The patent was granted, giving Stewart credit for the invention. The slave who actually came up with the idea (a cotton-processing device) is mentioned in the patent only as “Ned.” Because of the decision in the Stewart case, the patent law was changed to say that a slave could not hold a patent. When the Confederate States broke away from the United States in 1861, the Confederate government surprised many people by once again allowing slaves to hold patents. After the Civil War, however, the patent law was changed again, specifying that all people throughout the United States had the right to patent their own inventions.
Benjamin Bradley’s cause of death was unknown.