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July 31, 1790 - The First US Patent Is Awarded

Posted July 31, 2018 12:00 AM by RSBenner
Pathfinder Tags: Hopkins July 31 patent

The protection of intellectual property is not a new concept. In fact, patents in various forms date back to 14th century England. So, it is not a surprise to learn that there was some sort of patent procedure that existed in the American colonies. This system allowed inventors to appear before the colonial governments and be granted exclusive commercial rights to their product. However, because each colonial government was separate, this ‘patent’ was only valid in that particular colony. To extend the influence of the rights, the inventor would have to petition each colony, a very cumbersome procedure. This continued until after the American Revolution.

On June 21, 1788, the Constitution of the United States was ratified. In Article I, Section 8 was a provision for the protection of intellectual property, stating:

"The Congress shall have 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; …"

This newly appointed power was exercised in the Patent Act of 1790 which created a board whose task was to issue patents for "sufficiently useful and important" inventions. The patent board consisted of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War and the Attorney General.

The first patent was awarded to Samuel Hopkins, a Philadelphia Quaker, on July 31, 1790. It was signed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, and Edmund Randolph, as Secretary of War. The patent was issued for a period of 14 years and was for an improvement "in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process."

Potash (potassium carbonate) was an important product in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was widely used, and exported, for use in gunpowder, dying, baking, making glass and soap, and for woolen cloth. Potash was typically made from the ashes of hardwood which were dissolved in water and then placed on a fire and boiled until only the potash crystals remained.

The patent by Samuel Hopkins protected his discovery of a process where raw ashes were first burned in a furnace, of his own design. The result was then dissolved and boiled in water. This process produced a much higher volume, and a higher quality of potash.

Reference: http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-395

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Re: July 31, 1790 - The First US Patent Is Awarded

08/01/2018 10:35 AM

Thanks. I had no idea that Washington and Jefferson had signed patents.

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