July 31 – First U. S. Patent

Posted on July 31, 2015

You probably know that a patent is an official license granting an inventor the sole right to make, use, and sell his or her invention for a set number of years. It's a sort of legal protection for what is called “intellectual property” – for example, specific plans for how to build a steam hammer, or the concept of a pen with a rotating ball in its point – so that other people can't just steal the inventor's idea.

Actually, that is the MODERN definition of patents. A long time ago, in England and in colonial America, patents weren't about the rights of inventors to profit from their own inventions. Instead, patents were licenses to produce and profit, all right, but they were conferred by the king or other governmental official on whoever they wanted. In other words, the king might give his nephew a patent to produce globes, his childhood friend a patent to produce compound microscopes, and his uncle a patent to produce graphite pencil “leads” – even though those three lucky fellows had nothing to do with inventing those items!

There wasn't a general policy of who should get patent rights. Instead, each decision about a patent was specific to that one case. A king or Congress could be just or nepotistic in assigning patent rights.

Near the end of the 1600s, English judges began to change patent law in favor of the inventors. However, the transition to our modern understanding of patents was not complete for about a century.

In the spring of 1790, the almost-two-year-old nation called the United States of America passed its first patent law. Of course, at that point, there had already been loads of patents given in the region that was now the U.S., under the aforementioned Colonial / English system.

The new patent law didn't get used much its first year; only three patents were granted in 1790. The very first one was granted on this date in 1790, to Samuel Hopkins for a process of making potash, which is an ingredient in fertilizer. The patent was signed by President George Washington! And the Patent Commission, at the time, was made up of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.

(I guess it's good that there were so few patent applications at that time. Sure Washington, Jefferson, Knox, and Randolph had a few other important duties to attend to!)

By the way...

All the records of all the patents granted from 1790 to 1836 were burned up in an accidental fire, while they were in temporary storage. There were no copies or rosters kept, at the time. Nobody knows for sure exactly how many patents were granted in that time—the best estimate is 9,957—so we call these patents X-Patents. (“X” is often considered a symbol of “the unknown.”)

There was a call to all the inventors to produce their copies of their patents so that the collection could be reconstructed.

At this time, people decided that there should be a serial numbering system, which is still used today. Before that, patents were referred to by title and date, but numbering the patents helped with filing and referral to earlier patents.

So all of the early inventions in the reconstructed files were given numbers retroactively, so that they could be a part of the new numbering system. The pre-1836 inventions have an “X” by their numbers as a reminder that we aren't completely certain of the order in which those patents were granted.

Also, some of these early patents came to light after other, later patents; they have been given fractional numbers so chronological order can be maintained. Instead of being marked with an “X,” these patents have “FX” for Fractional X-Patents.

Here is an example of some X-Patent numbers:

  • Samuel Hopkins's invention, honored here, is #1X.
  • Eli Whitney's famous cotton gin is #72X.
  • Aaron Hale's modification for wheels and axels #8736 and 7/8 FX.

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July 30 – Happy Birthday, Giorgio Vasari

Posted on July 30, 2015

On this date in 1511, one of the founders of art history was born.

Giorgio Vasari was one of those polymath guys: he was a painter, he was an architect, he was a writer, and he was a historian. Combine all that together, and you get someone who writes one of the seminal books on art history!

Born in Italy, Vasari was a pupil of a man who painted stained glass, and at age he traveled to Florence to study. He became a friend of none other than Michelangelo!

Soon he visited Rome to study the works of Raphael and other artists. He was making his own paintings and frescoes and was steadily employed in various Italian cities, such as Florence, Rome, and Naples. He was also successful as an architect, constructing a loggia here and a passage there, renovating churches, and even building an octagonal dome for a basilica.

A loggia is an open-sided extension of a house or building...

As I hinted above, however, Vasari is now famous, not for his painting or architecture, but for his art historical writing. He is often called “the first art historian.” In his book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari invented the idea of creating an encyclopedia of artists' biographies. Also, Vasari was the first to use the term “Renaissance” in print about the “rebirth” in arts that started more than a century before his birth.

Of course, Vasari's book is not perfect. He gave more kudos to artists who lived in Florence, even, than they deserved, and he ignored artists from Venice and other parts of Europe to some extent, in the first edition. Later editions did include artists from Venice, however.

Critics say that Vasari included some amusing gossip in his biographies, and many of the stories sound quite realistic – although some anecdotes are known to be fictional. Vasari didn't do as much research as he might have done, and some of what he wrote has been corrected by modern art historians (we're talking birth dates and exact dates of a painting, for example). However, most critics think that Vasari's opinions about artworks are very well-stated and accurate and unbiased.

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the invention of corn flakes

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July 29 – Happy Birthday, Walter Hunt

Posted on July 29, 2015

Some people achieve fame and fortune when they invent something really useful or popular.

But Walter Hunt (born in New York on this date in 1796) invented a whole lot of somethings and didn't earn as much fame and fortune as, perhaps, he ought to have.

For example, do you know who invented the sewing machine? If your answer is Elias Howe (as mine was), you might be interested to know that Hunt invented a lockstitch sewing machine with a second thread (bobbin) and an eye-pointed needle more than a decade before Howe. However, Hunt feared that he would put seamstresses out of work, so he didn't patent his sewing machine. Foolish, right? Because of course someone else just re-invented it!

Some other Hunt inventions include a repeating rifle, flax spinner, knife sharpener, streetcar bell, hard-coal-burning stove, street sweeping machine, velocipede (early bicycle), and ice plough. Oh! And a fountain pen, nail-making machine, swivel-cap stopper, inkstand... and the biggie: the safety pin!

Hunt was a prolific inventor, but he didn't always realize the importance of his inventions. The invention of the safety pen is a good case in point:

Hunt owed some guy fifteen dollars. So he sat down to invent something useful, and a couple of hours later he came up with an idea for a safety pin. He patented his idea, but he didn't realize how big this invention would be, and he sold his patent and all the rights to his invention for just $400.

Nowadays, just two companies in the U.S. make safety pins, with each factory putting out over 3 million safety pins a day! The company that paid Hunt $400 for the rights to the safety pin made millions upon millions of dollars in profit from his invention!

For more about safety pins, check out this earlier post.

By the way...

When Howe patented a similar sewing machine to Hunt's earlier invention, Hunt's family prompted him to challenge Howe's claim. He did so, but the patent office accepted Howe as the first to submit a patent application for the invention.
However, Hunt was able to receive a patent for an improvement on the sewing machine – a machine that had a fabric feed that would help move fabric through the machine at an even rate and therefore minimize jams.

In 1858 Isaac Singer agreed to pay Hunt $50,000 for his original design – but Hunt died before this payment was made. I assume (and hope!) that Hunt's family received the money.

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July 28 – National Milk Chocolate Day

Posted on July 28, 2015

I don't know how smart it is to have any sort of chocolate day in July! Us Northern-Hemisphere types often have hot, hot days and warm nights – just the sort of weather that can make a mess of chocolate treats!

But I got to wondering when people first started eating chocolate...

Here's the scoop:

The word cocoa comes from the Spanish word cacao, which comes from the native-Central-American (Nahuatl) word cacahuatl. The cacao tree is native to South and Central America, but the American natives who used parts of the cacao tree for food first used the fleshy fruit to make alcohol. The seeds (beans) found in pods in the middle of the fruit were not the first attraction to the plant.

These are cocoa beans in their pod.

By 1400 or 1500 BCE, various Central- and South-American peoples were roasting the cocoa beans and shucking off their papery skins. They used the chocolate in various ways, and many people even used cocoa beans as a form of money.

You have probably already guessed that cocoa beans from the cacao tree were one of the many foods introduced to Europe and the rest of the world by the Spanish conquistadors. Now, however, about 70% of the world's chocolate is grown in Africa!

Here are some chocolate terms:

cocoa butter is the fatty part of the cocoa bean

cocoa solids are the remaining, nonfat part of the cocoa bean, which is ground into a powder

chocolate liquor is a liquid created by melting cocoa beans; its about half butter and half solids

raw chocolate has never been heated or mixed with other ingredients, and it has never been processed in any way

unsweetened chocolate is pure chocolate liquor mixed with other fats to create a solid; trust me, this is hard to eat!

baking chocolate is unsweetened chocolate; it is often mixed with sugar to make chocolate cookies or cakes

bitter chocolate is also unsweetened chocolate

dark chocolate is created by adding fat and sugar to cocoa; it's yummy

bittersweet chocolate is dark chocolate that only has a little bit of added sugar; sometimes vanilla is added

semi-sweet chocolate is dark chocolate with more added sugar; many chocolate chips fall into this category

sweet chocolate has more sugar even that semi-sweet

couverture is chocolate with a lot of extra cocoa butter

milk chocolate is made by adding milk powder, liquid milk, or condensed milk to chocolate along with sugar and perhaps extra cocoa butter

white chocolate is sugar, milk, and cocoa butter – but no cocoa solids

compound chocolate is made by adding vegetable fats to cocoa

cocoa powder is made by removing nearly all the cocoa butter and grinding the rest of the cocoa bean into powder

modeling chocolate is used to create decorations; it is made by combing melted chocolate with corn syrup or other syrup

  • Check out these amazing things made out of chocolate,

  • Some people have gathered amazing chocolate sculptures on Pinterest pages

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July 27 – Victory Day in North Korea

Posted on July 27, 2015

Last September, I wrote about North Korea on the day of one of its patriotic holidays. Well, as it turns out, it has various patriotic holidays three months in a row: July, August, and September. Today is considered “Victory Day” - the day to celebrate the end of the Korean War in 1953.

The Korean name for this holiday translates as “Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.”

It's interesting that North Korea claims victory – because of course most historians say that the war ended in a stalemate—with Korea returning to the way things were before the war—and a few say that North Korea lost the war, as it was trying to expand and swallow up South Korea, and was prevented from doing so.

But that's North Korea for you: a place where propaganda about the nation's and its leaders' supposed greatness is everywhere, where MISinformation about the rest of the world abounds, where actual information from reliable sources is hard to find. I read a few articles that claim that most people know that the propaganda isn't true—they sense that they are being lied to—but, still, the people who have managed to get out of North Korea and see the world for themselves are shocked to see HOW MUCH they've been lied to!

And cities and towns in North Korea looks a bit like ghost towns...

As I wrote in my last post, North Korea is almost as dark, on nighttime satellite photos, as the ocean that surrounds the Korean peninsula. That makes South Korea look like an island!

And every photo of North Korea shows almost-empty roads.

I think this is a Google Earth shot?
Most photos of almost-empty roads
are from surreptitious photos by
rare visitors or journalists.
I saw quite a few photos of traffic officers,
but zero photos of traffic.
10 lanes wide...for what?

Lest you think that photographers took these photos during really off-times, here is a video of sparsely-used street after street. Most of the people using the roads are on bicycle or foot. And remember that this video is of Pyongyang, the largest, most populous city – and the capital city – of North Korea. If that city seems like a ghost town, what must the other towns look like?

Here are some more photos that show city scenes that are decidedly under-populated: 

Notice that the playground ride is shaped like a ballistic missile!

I found a few photos in which these monuments were surrounded by lots of people,
but in general the squares are empty or practically empty.

This was captioned "Children at a rural shop."
So...this little stand is a "shop"? Yikes!
See? Practically empty squares...

...and temples...
This is a zoo. North Korea is one place in which it is NOT
correct to say, "Wow, the zoo is a zoo today!"

 Some of the photos released by the North Korean government show PLENTY of people who participate in mass games and mass dances:

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Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca

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