Simply described, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is an agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce that issues patents to inventors and businesses for their inventions, and trademark registration for product and intellectual property identification. The USPTO’s budget is rather uncommon among federal agencies because it operates solely on fees collected by its users, and not on taxpayer dollars. The early history of the U.S. Patent Office is quite engaging with significant events occurring over the course of more than two centuries.
These events include considerable evolution and hotly contested regulation governing the rights to protection of intellectual property while offering innovations by some of history’s most creative thinkers. This rich legacy includes inventions that have materially impacted our environment, our lifestyles and even our lifespans, while also generating tremendous debate about their underlying value and the motivations of patent owners. In some cases, patents have been branded “patently absurd” by observers of the patent system. There have been many patent grants throughout history for which patent rights should never have been granted, yet these have managed to find a way through the process. There are others that have been persistently rejected despite being both novel and non-obvious as viewed by many experts outside the patent office. Regardless, this series endeavors to provide just a thumbnail sketch of the lengthy history of the Patent Office, highlighting some of the many interesting events that have unfolded under the watchful eyes of the ever-changing USPTO leadership.
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The Early History of the U.S. Patent Office
The United States Patent Office was created with the Patent Act of 1790. That Act was founded on these words, found in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall have the 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.”
Thomas Jefferson, commenting on his softening opposition to patents at the time, stated: “The patent act has given a spring to invention beyond my comprehension.”
In 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Attorney General Edmund Randolph, and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson headed a three-member Patent Commission, overseeing a requirement for submission by the inventor that a working model (no larger than 12” x 12”) of each invention be produced in miniature to be submitted with each application. This requirement was purported to be necessary due to a lack of effective writing skills among many of the applicants of the time, with the models serving to provide clarity as to the nature and purpose of the intended invention. Some 200,000 models in total were generated during the 90 year period from 1790 through 1880. These models were stored for many years, with most surviving two substantial patent office fires until the requirement was abolished in 1880. In 1925, the models were eventually sold off, and went through a number of ownership changes. The largest surviving portion of this collection (over 4,000 models) is currently the property of the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware.
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Among the many interesting models from the early history of the U.S. Patent Office are the following:
“Cotton Seed Planter” “Earth Scraper “Fence Machine” (barbed wire) “Wrestling Toy”
On July 31, 1790, the first U.S. patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins for an improvement “in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process.” This patent was signed by then-President George Washington.
Note that this patent image is annotated with the number “X”000001, the result of an adjustment to the patent numbering system to recognize the loss of the first 10,280 patents in a fire in 1836. The patent commission at the time reconstructed the collection from the only copies available, those held by the inventors. Fewer than 3,000 of those patents have been recovered and re-issued with numbers that now include the “X” designation. Prior to this fire, patents were not numbered.
As part of the early history of the U.S. Patent Office, in 1836, the patent commission began numbering patents beginning with 0000001. An interesting “X” patent is Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin, number X000072: