Monday, June 30, 2008

The Foundation of the U.S. Patent System

Inscribed above the front door of the Department of Commerce building in Washington, D.C. is a quote from Abraham Lincoln that neatly sums up the role that patents have played in developing the industry and commerce that have come to define the United States as we know it:


Patents have been with us almost since the United States' inception and have acted, as Lincoln eloquently points out, as an incentive to innovate. It may be useful, then, to pause between bites of hot dog and fireworks shows this Independence Day to take a look at the genesis of the patent system in the U.S.

The power of Congress to establish a limited monopoly for inventors was laid out in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution:
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;
When George Washington signed the Patent Act of April 14, 1790, the burden of examining patent applications landed on a three person panel consisting of the Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and the Attorney General.

The first patent was granted July 31, 1790, to Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia. Though the handwritten document looks pretty primitive compared to a modern patent, you can see the basic elements are there: a description of the invention (it was a new method for making something called pot ash, a material in the soap-making process), an affirmation that it was new and useful, and the granting to the exclusive right to use and sell the invention to the inventor and his heirs for a specified term (14 years at the time).

Try to imagine Condaleeza Rice, Michael Mukasey, and Robert Gates scheduling time every day to examine patents. After three years, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph found that examining applications and mediating interferences (when two people apply for the same or similar patents at around the same time) took up too much of their time. In 1793, Congress passed a revised patent law with a much more lenient process in which patents were registered without being examined.

It wasn't until the Act of July 4, 1836 that examination was restored. This act more or less established the modern patent system, in which the Commissioner of Patents, who was appointed by the President with Senate confirmation, led an office of examiners who would determine the usefulness and novelty of an invention. 1836 is also the year that patents were first numbered; the older patents have an "X" before their numbers, which were assigned retroactively.

There are some pretty great stories from the early days of the Patent Office, like where William Thornton, an early Superintendent, laid such a guilt-trip on the British soldiers burning Washington D.C. in 1814 that they spared the building in which the patent models were stored.

For those with any interest in the history of patents in the U.S., we have a couple of books here at the Patent and Trademark Center. (We also have a full run of U.S. patents, which itself is an astounding historical document.)

When you're lighting your hand-protector-equipped sparkler at your Independence Day celebration this year, don't forget the role that inventors played in the early years of the United States.

No comments: