|U.S. Patent No. X000001, granted to |
Samuel Hopkins on July 31, 1790.
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.
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.