Osbourn Dorsey, the 16-year-old African American who invented the doorknob in 1878

Stephen Nartey January 02, 2023
Osbourn Dorsey created the doorknob. Public domain image

On December 10, 1878, 16-year-old Osbourn Dorsey invented the doorknob and doorstop to change the culture of people using unorthodox means of keeping their doors closed.

The patent number which was issued to Osbourn was 210, 764. He was said to be residing in Washington D.C. His innovation was described as an “extraordinary” and “useful upgrade” in door-holding devices.  

Details of when Dorsey was born remain scanty but historians who have been researching into his early life say he may have been born around September 19, 1862. His mother was Christina Dorsey and he had two siblings — Mary and Levi.

This is captured in the Washington DC slave emancipation records from April 1862, where Dorsey is listed as “Osbourn Dorsey- son of the above named Christina- Aged about eight months- ordinary size- dark complexion.” He was born a slave but freed when he was around eight months old, according to history. His sister, Mary was six years older than him and was also described as ordinary sized while Levi was four years old and described as huge in stature.

Little is known about his life but one fact is documented; he had a patent for his invention in 1878. Records of Dorsey’s father are also unknown. But what is known is that the former owner of the Dorseys, Mary Peter, asked for compensation after they were freed. Historians suggest that the Dorseys probably were the only slaves that Mary Peter had.

They were initially the property of a family with the last name Washington. Mary Peter purchased the Dorseys in April 1861, before Dorsey was born. Mary Peter demanded $1,350 in compensation for the freedom of her four slaves.

Details from the 1880 census indicate that when Dorsey was 18 years old, he worked as a butcher and resided with his parents, siblings and brother-in-law, Isaac Williams. Before Dorsey invented the door knob, people relied on some type of latch to close their doors, with others using leather straps as handles.

The invention wasn’t readily embraced. It took many years for people to accept fixing the knobs on their doors when they realized the knobs offered them better safety and ease when opening their doors compared to the latch or leather straps.

The description Dorsey submitted to the patent office is akin to what we now refer to as a doorknob. It had a rod which is horizontally stationed between the doorknob and doorframe.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 2, 2023


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