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As an enslaved engineer, Benjamin Bradley (Bordley) was denied the opportunity to patent his invention of the first steam engine powerful enough to run a war ship. Eventually, he sold his engine to gain his freedom, propelling forward a life of ingenuity and creativity as one of many overlooked Black inventors.
Born into slavery in the early 1830s in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Benjamin Bordley allegedly learned to read and write from his master’s children. Later in life, white authors would go on to incorrectly write his last name as “Bradley”, an error that was continued by historians to this day, according to the African American registry, a non-profit that archives culture and contributions from Black Americans.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t until he was brought in to work at a printing office at age 16 that his engineering prowess became known. Using just a gun barrel, pewter, round steel, and other materials at his disposal, the curious creative built a steam engine, impressing his slaveholder, John T. Hammond and launching a legacy for other Black inventors to follow.
Intrigued by the skills of a young, enslaved teen, Hammond enlisted Bradley to help out at the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. While most of the money he earned went to Hammond, the slaveholder allowed Bradley to keep five dollars a month for himself.
Benjamin Bradley (Bordley): one of many Black inventors denied recognition by U.S. Patent Office
While at the Academy, Benjamin Bradley (Bordley) helped set up science experiments involving chemical gases. He also continued to build steam engines, selling one model to “midshipmen.” Using the money he earned from selling his engine and from working at the Academy, Bradley went on to develop the first steam engine large enough to power the first “cutter of a sloop-of-war” that could exceed speeds of 16 knots, an amazing accomplishment at the time.
Again, he sold this new and improved model to a classmate, which gave him the proceeds he needed to develop an engine for the first steam-powered warship. Despite his accomplishment, U.S. laws preventing enslaved Africans from owning patents meant Black inventors like Benjamin Bradley (Bordley) would never receive the credit he deserved, a report from the American Bar Association shows. Yet, that didn’t stop him from using his saved funds and money he gained through selling his invention to purchase his freedom for roughly $1,000.
Maryland State Manumission records keep an archive of slave documents, such as certificates of freedom. According to the records, John T. Hammond accepted payment for Benjamin’s freedom on September 30, 1859.
After bribing the country of his birth to recognize his God-given right as a free person, Bradley went on to work at the Philosophical Department at the Naval Academy in 1864.
According to the 1900 U.S. Census, 64-year-old Benjamin Bradley (Bordley) went on to live in Mashpee, Massachusetts working as a philosophical lecturer. Married to Gertrude for 19 years, the couple raised three children together before Benjamin passed away in 1904. His body is buried at the Mashpee Town Cemetery in Massachusetts, but his legacy lives on among a long list of influential Black inventors.