The Development of a Patent System to Protect Inventions

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The Development of a Patent System to Protect Inventions


From the time when the very first man walked upright, invention was key to human development. The introduction of a spoken language paved the way for a true society; tools allowed for more efficient hunting and thus led to greater longevity; writing ushered in recorded history. On the American frontier, ingenuity was crucial for survival, yet when America finally gained its independence in 1776, all manufacturing and invention was tightly controlled by England. America's founding fathers quickly realized that in order to grow as a nation, they had to nurture the spirit of invention in their countrymen.

The first article of the Constitution provided for the creation of what would become the U.S. patent system. For the first time, inventors were rewarded for their ingenuity with true ownership of their work. From Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, to Thomas Edison's light bulb, the patent system helped make the United States one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world.


In the early days of the American frontier, self-reliance was essential. If something was broken, the frontiersmen were forced to fix it themselves. If something needed to be built for use around the house or in the field, chances were the frontiersmen had to build it. But while early America was forged on ingenuity and creativity, England still held the reigns when it came to manufacturing and invention.

Europeans were no strangers to the patent system. The earliest precursor was developed in 500 b.c. in the Greek colony of Sybaris, where it was a law that if a confectioner or cook invented a particular dish, no one else could create that same dish for a period of one year. The earliest English patent grant dates back to April 3, 1449. It allowed John of Utynam to be the sole practitioner of the art of making colored glass for a term of twenty years. Early patents granted in England were subject to stringent requirements. To qualify, an inventor not only had to finagle a special act by Parliament, he needed to get in the good graces of the ruling monarch.

In the early colonies, the first exclusive right for use of an invention was granted to Joseph Jenks, Sr. of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1646. The General Court allowed him sole ownership for a term of 14 years of the water-mill engines he developed. The first known patent granted to a colonial representative was believed to have been in 1715, when Thomas Masters, a Pennsylvania Quaker, and his wife Sybilla applied for a patent for their water-powered engine used for grinding corn into corn meal. It was a milestone for the colonists, however the British still held the patent on their home soil.

The real interest in invention and ownership in America began in around 1775, coinciding with the drive for independence. After the Revolution, our founding fathers realized that for our nation to develop successfully without British rule, an incentive was needed to foster independent invention. For widespread manufacturing to take place, a monopoly must be granted to an inventor, not just in the area in which he lived, but one that spanned the entire nation, securing them the rights to their invention and its profits.


On May 14, 1787, delegates from the 13 states met in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention. Their goal was to draft a constitution that would replace the earlier Articles of Confederation. President George Washington presided over the Convention. Initially, there was no mention made of granting patent rights, but on August 18, James Madison of Virginia proposed a measure that would "secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time," and "encourage by premiums and provisions, the advancement of useful knowledge and discoveries." On the same day, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina also submitted a similar proposal, "to grant patents for useful inventions," and "to secure to authors exclusive rights for a certain time."

Both proposals were submitted to the convention. The committee, given some helpful coaxing with a presentation of John Fitch's brilliant new invention, the steamboat, gave their approval. In the first article of the Constitution, they provided for what was to become the foundation of the U.S. patent system.

Congress shall have the power 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.

But this provision alone was not enough to secure patents for early inventors. Many, including Fitch, filed petitions with the first session of the first Congress in 1789 for patents and copyrights. None were granted, and inventors were understandably frustrated. On January 8, 1790, President Washington in his State of the Union Address called for the promotion of new and useful inventions at home and abroad. On January 25, 1790, the House called together a committee to draft a patent statute. It took nearly three months, but on April 10, 1790, the first Patent Act was signed into law by the President.

In the early days, there was no patent office. A board was established to administer the new patent system, led by the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson and including Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. There were stringent requirements regarding early patent applications. They had to contain a written description of the invention, along with drafts (for example, technical drawings) and a model. After the committee had approved the application, it was passed to the Attorney General for a legal review, then sent to the President of the United States for his signature, and finally returned to the Secretary of State to sign. If granted, a patent ran for a term of 14 years.

The first patent was signed on July 31, 1790, but only two other patents were granted in that year. This probably had to do with the rigorous procedure, as well as the fact that the Patent Board had to invent a system before they could even begin examining applications. Applicants were unsatisfied with the provisions of the 1790 Patent Act, and Patent Board members realized that they were unable to fulfill their responsibilities while carrying on with their full-time jobs. In response, the Act of 1793 was passed, abolishing the Patent Board. The State Department was now charged with registering patents, and the courts made the determination as to whether the patent was admissible.

The new Act allowed any inventor to receive a patent, provided they submitted an application complete with a model and had witnesses. While the 1790 Act had allowed both citizens and aliens to apply, now only citizens were given that right. The only drawback was the increased fee, from around five dollars to thirty dollars, which was a prohibitive amount for many farmers and laborers.

The first important invention patented under the new act was the now famous cotton gin, invented by schoolteacher Eli Whitney (1765-1825). Whitney applied for a patent in June of 1793 and was granted it in March of the next year. It has been said that his invention helped to develop mass production of cotton and even played a role in assuring the Northern victory in the Civil War.

In 1791, it was decided that the federal government move south from its present location in Philadelphia. A district was chosen near the settlements of Georgetown, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia, in what is now Washington, D.C. On June 1, 1802, a clerk, known as the "Superintendent of Patents," was hired to oversee the issuance of patents, and the United States Patent Office was officially born. In the beginning, it consisted of a single crowded room in a building housing the State Department, as well as several other departments.

The 1793 Patent Act held firm until 1836, when a revision in patent laws charged a new Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks to oversee the office. The office itself remained in the State Department building until 1849, when it was moved to the Department of the Interior. In 1925 it was transferred again, this time to the Department of Commerce, where it remains today.

The same basic tenets that governed the office then, still govern the office today. Patents are issued to individuals for a period of 17 years. After that, the invention is owned by the public. The 17-year term encourages the original inventor to improve upon his or her invention, in order to apply for a new patent. The Patent and Trademark Office administers the laws, examining applications to determine which inventions are entitled to patent protection. The office also maintains all records, enabling inventors to search for duplications of their own creation.

In the two centuries following the initiation of the Patent Office, the United States saw a technological explosion. Many notable inventors left their indelible stamp on history. Henry Ford built transportation that was easily affordable by the masses; Alexander Graham Bell made long distance communication possible; and the father of all invention, Thomas Edison, held an astounding 1,093 patents for everything from the phonograph to the electric pen. Each inventor was protected by the American patent system, and was allowed to prosper from their contributions. These inventors changed the face of American manufacturing, helping to make the United States the richest, most powerful nation in the world.


Further Reading


Dobyns, Kenneth W. The Patent Office Pony: A History of the Early Patent Office. Fredericksburg, VA: Sergeant Kirkland's Museum and Historical Society, Inc., 1997.


The American Documents: Patent Pending. Newsweek Productions, Republic Pictures Home Video, 1975.

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The Development of a Patent System to Protect Inventions

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The Development of a Patent System to Protect Inventions