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This Month in Business History: The First U.S. Patent

July 15, 2021 • History Factory

You can’t hold ideas in your hands. You can’t feel them or taste them. They don’t have a smell. Still, they most certainly are things, and, as early as the Middle Ages, people have debated what ideas are, who gets to claim them, and how that affects the way business is done.

Textile manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution.

By the time the United States won its independence, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, as was the related discussion surrounding intellectual property. At that time in England, it was as if someone had wished on a dandelion and blown the seeds across each of its cities to embed themselves in the earth. From the ground, factories sprouted. New machinery clanked and whistled; steam soon became indistinguishable from clouds.

In England, inventors were granted “monopolies” instead of patents. Monopolies were given by the monarch, often on the basis of who a person was rather than what they had accomplished. These monopolies didn’t have an expiration date, which meant power could be consolidated in the hands of one business or family for generations. Eventually, reform arrived in the form of the 1624 Statute of Monopolies. Exclusive rights were restricted to 14 years, but the change didn’t spur much innovation. Monopolies were granted only for inventions that were not “mischievous to the state” or “generally inconvenient.” This wording was vague enough to enable the House of Commons to deny patents that interfered with the interests of the British nobility.

Artist Peter Tillemans’ depiction of the House of Commons, c. 1710.

Across the sea, America was as new and novel as every other technological advancement in the works. From its founding, the new nation was presented as a land of opportunity and untapped potential (despite the fact that the land was already very much in use when colonists arrived). The idea was that if humanity was going to continue to progress, innovate and create a better system to govern the realm of invention, this was the place to do it.

Driving innovation was at the forefront of the Founding Fathers’ minds. In George Washington’s first State of the Union address in 1790, the newly minted president declared to Congress: “… Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature.” The same year, the U.S. Patent Office was established with a similar goal: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries …”

The U.S. Patent Office borrowed much from England’s Statute of Monopolies. Namely, the founders wanted limitations on patents to prevent long-standing monopolies. If an inventor’s application was approved, others would be prevented from “making, using, offering for sale, or selling” that invention. Typically, exclusive rights were granted for a period of 20 years.

In July 1790, the office issued its first patent to a man named Samuel Hopkins for an improvement in the manufacture of potash. Forbes isn’t writing profiles on potash manufacturers these days, but there was a time when the U.S. produced most of the world’s supply. Derived from the phrase “pot ash,” the chemical comprises various salts that contain potassium and is used primarily in fertilizers. As its name suggests, in Hopkins’ time, potash was made by burning hardwood trees and then soaking the ashes in a pot.

First U.S. patent, issued to Samuel Hopkins for an improvement in the manufacture of potash.

Since the 1750s, the U.S. — namely, its vast, uncut forests — had been ripe and sought-after ground for potash production. Hopkins’ invention allowed for the ashes to be burned a second time, which resulted in a higher yield of potash. Beyond moving manufacturing forward in a significant way, the first patent stood out for another reason: The document was signed by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Jefferson, along with Edmund Randolph and Henry Knox, led the Patent Commission and reviewed applications, along with the accompanying models and miniatures. These days, the secretary of state isn’t signing off on patents. In 1802, an official clerk, Dr. William Thornton, was assigned to lead the Patent Office.

Construction of the new U.S. Patent Office (pictured above) began following the 1836 fire. The building is now an exhibit space for the Smithsonian Institution.

In the ensuing centuries, the Patent Office would prove integral to American history and business. Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, for example, submitted competing patent applications for the invention of the telephone on the very same day: February 14, 1876. Bell would win their patent war, leading to the launch of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (which would eventually morph into the telecom giant AT&T).

Sketches from Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent.

Cultural shifts can be traced through Patent Office records as well. While the office was always open to all in theory, not everyone could always claim ownership of their ideas. Women, for example, couldn’t own property in the country’s early days, let alone intellectual property. It also would be nearly a century after the U.S. Patent Office’s founding when a Black woman would be officially credited with an invention. In 1884, Judy Reed, who likely couldn’t read or write, would sign her name with an “X” on a patent for a “Dough Kneader and Roller.”

The Patent Office remains relevant today as businesses and individuals constantly compete to secure ownership of intellectual property and kickstart (or super-charge) their fortunes. It issued its 10 millionth patent in 2018, launching an interactive historical timeline in celebration. This month we celebrate its first contribution to technological advancement and its long, continued legacy of promoting “science and useful arts.”

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