The Story of Patent X000001
A sign spurs a reporter to chase down the truth about American intellectual property history.
In late July my husband drove our daughter to sleepaway camp in Pittsford, Vermont. As he was driving through the town, he noticed a historic plaque in the village green. Normally this wouldn't be worth mentioning, but circumstances in this case were a bit unusual.
The plaque proclaimed that the first U.S. patent was issued to a resident of this charming New England town.
What were the chances that the daughter of a reporter who covers intellectual property would end up at a summer camp near the home of the first U.S. patent owner? My husband—a journalist himself—quickly pulled over and snapped a photo of the plaque, which he then emailed me.
My first reaction upon receiving it was amusement. But after a while I was also intrigued. The date of issue for that first patent was July 31, 1790—223 years almost to the day before my husband drove past that sign.
I decided to do a little research to commemorate the birth of the U.S. patent. After all, the United States has issued more than 8.5 million patents since that first one. The least I could do was learn more about this historic accomplishment. But I got more than I bargained for.
That first patent, issued to someone named Samuel Hopkins, was good for 14 years. It was for an improvement "in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process," and it was signed by President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
Now potash, the residue from repeated boiling of wood ashes, was a big deal back then—used in the manufacture of soap, glass, and gunpowder. Historians note that potash may be thought of as America's first industrial chemical, and the Pittsford plaque even says that "on this ingredient of soap manufacture was founded Vermont's first main economy."
But if we've learned anything in the last 223 years, it's this: Where there are patents, there are bound to be controversies. And where there are disagreements, correcting the record may take a while. So I shouldn't have been surprised when my fun little research project encountered a long-running dispute concerning the inventor of patent X000001.
Samuel Hopkins was indeed the first recipient of a U.S. patent—but it most likely wasn't the Samuel Hopkins of Pittsford. Early patent records were destroyed in 1836 in a fire at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., so not much was known about the first patentee other than his name. But the legend of Pittsford's patentee started taking root soon after.
The Patent Office restored most of the records lost in the fire to the best of its ability, and in the 1840s the commissioner of patents created a list of all the patents issued since 1790, mistakenly giving Samuel Hopkins a Vermont residence. Almost 100 years later—in the 1930s—a genealogist doing research in New England wrote that the first patent holder was from Pittsford, and that myth was reinforced and perpetuated in the 1950s by an employee of the Vermont Historical Society.