Thursday, July 9, 2015

America's First Patent: 225 Years of History & Mystery

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution vested Congress with the power "[t]o 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 earliest American patent statute was enacted in April 1790, and provided successful applicants with exclusive rights in their inventions for a period of fourteen years. Only three inventors were granted patents under this version of the Act (which would be revised in 1793). The first was "Samuel Hopkins of the city of Philadelphia," who was granted patent number X0000001 on July 31, 1790. Hopkins received the first U.S. patent, signed by President George Washington himself, for his method of manufacturing pot ash and pearl ash, forms of potassium carbonate which were commonly used in the production of soap or fertilizer.
U.S. Patent No. X000001, granted to
Samuel Hopkins on July 31, 1790.
The enterprising Hopkins is also credited with securing the first-ever Canadian patent, granted the following year for the same pot ash manufacturing process by an April 1791 ordinance from the provincial government of Quebec. (For more on the history of Canadian patent law, see Gordon Asher, Development of the Patent System in Canada Since 1767, 43 C.P.R. 56, 59-60 (1965), available on level 1 of the library.) But little was known about this mysterious inventor from Philadelphia, especially after a fire swept through the U.S. Patent Office in December 1836 and destroyed the nation's earliest patent applications. Although the Patent Office attempted to re-create its early records, its 1847 index of patent-holders erroneously listed Hopkins's residence as Vermont. With the Patent Office copy lost, and Hopkins's personal copy unaccounted for, this bit of misinformation kindled a decades-long debate about the life of inventor Samuel Hopkins.

In the early 20th century, genealogical researchers connected the first patent to a Samuel Hopkins from Pittsford, Vermont. Bolstered by the Patent Office's published error, Vermont local historians reconstructed the life of this Hopkins, who later moved to a town in New York also named Pittsford. Some details didn't quite add up, especially after the discovery of the Philadelphia Hopkins's personal patent copy in the archives of the Chicago Historical Society – but the "Pittsford legend" took hold in both cities, which erected historical markers commemorating the life (Vermont) and death (New York) of this Samuel Hopkins. The Pittsford Hopkins began to receive credit in accounts of U.S. patent history as well – even in official Patent & Trademark Office publications.

In 1998, Philadelphia attorney and historian David W. Maxey published several articles debunking the conventional wisdom about Hopkins's identity, after extensive archival research. Samuel Hopkins, The Holder of the First U.S. Patent: A Study of Failure, 72 Penn. Mag. of Hist. & Biography (Jan./Apr. 1998), and Inventing History: The Holder of the First U.S. Patent, 80 J. Pat. & Trademark Off. Soc’y 155 (1998) finally set the record straight.

"An Address to the Manufacturers
of Pot and Pearl Ash," a 1791
pamphlet by inventor Samuel Hopkins.
Available with Duke NetID in Evans
Early American Imprints database.
Maxey determined that the true first U.S. patent holder was a Maryland native who relocated to Philadelphia around 1760. A shopkeeper-turned-entrepreneur, this Samuel Hopkins appeared in Philadelphia city directories as a "pot-ash manufacturer," published a pamphlet on his invention which he sent to Thomas Jefferson, and traveled to Canada to secure his 1791 patent from the government of Quebec. The head of a devout Quaker household, this Hopkins's movements could be traced through detailed meeting-house records, which recorded all member applications to relocate. It seemed that the true Philadelphia patent-holder had finally been discovered.

In 2000, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission erected an historical marker to Philadelphia's Samuel Hopkins, which still stands near the east end of Arch St. But dismantling the commemorative signs for the other Samuel Hopkins took longer, with all three cities claiming the holder of the first U.S. patent for nearly a decade. Pittsford, New York removed its historical marker in 2007 after declaring its information erroneous (although the town continues to sell and distribute a 1993 informational pamphlet which still includes the Hopkins plaque). Pittsford, Vermont finally removed its sign in late 2013, following a dogged investigation by Corporate Counsel contributor Lisa Shuchman, which revived the Samuel Hopkins identity crisis.

Some Hopkins scholars have also revised their works in light of Maxey's discoveries, but the persistent misinformation continues to dot the World Wide Web. From Hopkins's Wikipedia page to recent Vermont travel guides, it seems that old legends, much like old habits, can be stubbornly difficult to break – and the story serves as an excellent reminder to researchers not to automatically believe the first thing you read.

For more information about the history of patent law, check out the Goodson Law Library's research guide to Intellectual Property or search the Duke Libraries catalog for the subject "Patent laws and legislation – United States – History." For help locating these resources, be sure to Ask a Librarian.