The Patent Office

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The Patent Office


Legal Monopoly. The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8) provided for federal patents on inventions, and in 1790 Congress passed the first patent law, which granted to an inventor, for a period of fourteen years, the exclusive right to make or sell the invention covered by the patent. Some of the Founding Fathers were unsure that federal protection of inventions was a good idea. Benjamin Franklin believed that the inventor should freely give his ideas to society, and, true to his word, he never patented his famous Franklin Stove. But Franklin could afford to give his ideas for free, as could Thomas Jefferson, another inventor who never sought a patent. Jefferson was reluctant to see the government grant monopolies, but it became clear that inventors needed legal protection for their technological innovations.

First Patents. Thomas Jefferson, as secretary of state, served as the first administrator of the patent system. A man of infinite scientific curiosity, Jefferson was well suited to the task, especially when the number of patent applications was small. There were only three patents granted the first year, the earliest on 31 July 1790 to Samuel Hopkins of Vermont for his method of producing pearl ash, or potassium carbonate (used for making glass, soap, and pigments), from wood ashes.

Expansion. As the number of applications rapidly increased, it became obvious that the secretary of state would not be able to handle them. In 1802 Secretary of State James Madison appointed architect and inventor Dr. William H. Thornton, designer of the U.S. Capitol, as superintendent of patents. Thornton is said to have single-handedly saved the Patent Office from destruction when the British burned Washington in 1814 by convincing the British that they would destroy material that was valuable to all mankind. The building housing the Patent Office was not put to the torch, as were the Capitol, the presidents house, and other public buildings in Washington.

Potential for Abuse. Thornton occasionally abused his position. During his tenure he took out a surprising number of co-patents, and over time he came to believe that he, rather than John Fitch or Robert Fulton, had invented the steamboat. Thornton refused to grant a patent to John Hall, the inventor of the breech-loading rifle, unless Hall credited Thornton as coinventor. After Thorntons death in 1828, Congress reorganized the Patent Office, requiring stricter examination of patents (for example, it was no longer possible to patent a medicine with no proven benefit) and forbidding employees of the Patent Office from taking out patents.


Founded in Philadelphia in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, and revived after the dislocation of the Revolutionary War, the American Philosophical Society was dedicated to the promotion of all philosophical experiments that let light into the nature of things, tend to increase the power of man over matter, and multiply the conveniences and pleasures of life. Franklin was president from 1769 to his death in 1790. He was succeeded by astronomer and mathematician David Rittenhouse, and then by Thomas Jefferson, who presided from 1797 to 1815. Jefferson, who became president of the society at the same time he was elected vice president of the United States, claimed that the A.P.S. honor meant more to him than his political office.

The societys support of science and the practical arts was of considerable value in promoting American intellectual progress, as well as keeping the United States connected with European scientific and medical advances. In 1796 the society offered prizes for such projects as a simple method for computing longitude, improvements in fireplace and stove operation, and a design for street lamps. The emphasis was usually on the practical: how to preserve wine, raise silkworms, destroy weevils, or cure a sore throat. At the same time, radical theories were discussed and great minds engaged, as evidenced by a membership that included Benjamin Rush and James Madison.

Sources: Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

No Guarantee. As many inventors discovered, a legal patent was not always sufficient protection, and certainly no guarantee of financial success. Fitch and James Rumsey both received patents on their steamboats in the same year (1791), leaving them to dispute in public each others claim. Oliver Evans, who held several patents for factory mechanization and steam-engine improvements, was so discouraged by his long fight for royalties and the injustice and ingratitude of the public that he burned all the records of his inventions. Eli Whitney, the most famous of Americas early inventors, made nothing on his patented but easily reproduced cotton gin. Yet the first patent system was a significant step toward encouraging American inventiveness and offering some protection to those who invested in any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon not before known or used.


Harry Kursh, Inside the U.S. Patent Office (New York: Norton, 1959);

Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977).

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The Patent Office

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