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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