The Story of Patent X000001
A sign spurs a reporter to chase down the truth about American intellectual property history.
The story persisted uncontested for decades, but in 1998 it was challenged. David Maxey, a sometime historian who was a partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath, discovered that they had the wrong guy. The real holder of the first patent, he determined, was Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia.
Maxey did exhaustive research, finding a host of discrepancies in the record that convinced him that the Vermont Hopkins was the wrong man. He discovered that Samuel Hopkins in Philadelphia was listed in the local census as an "inventor" who had apprenticed to a potash maker when he was young. The original patent, which is in the possession of the Chicago Historical Society, indicates that the patent was issued to "Samuel Hopkins of the City of Philadelphia."
Maxey learned a great deal about Hopkins's life. He was born into a Quaker family and lived a comfortable middle class life until he began his entrepreneurial pursuits. "He pretty much lost his shirt trying to exploit the process in his invention," Maxey says. "The inventor bug did him in."
The lawyer/historian published two articles in respected journals on Hopkins, but the mythology of Pittsford's patentee persisted and became even more distorted. Wikipedia's entry for Hopkins says that he was from Philadelphia but purchased a farm in Pittsford. "With Wikipedia, the story acquired a new and even more bizarre fiction," says Maxey, who is amused that the invented history refuses to die.
To this day, Maxey's research has gone largely ignored—even by the contemporary Patent and Trademark Office, which came up with its own version of events in a 2001 press release marking the anniversary of the first patent. It said Hopkins was born in Vermont but was living in Philadelphia when the patent was granted. (The Philadelphia Hopkins was born in Maryland, and the Pittsford Hopkins was born in Amenia, New York.) "The PTO hasn't been a tower of strength on this issue," counters Maxey. "It's been pitching the wrong Samuel Hopkins for years."
The people of Pittsford, meanwhile, have for more than five decades proudly claimed the first patent holder as one of their own. They erected their plaque in 1956. And as recently as 2011, their senator, Patrick Leahy, noted on the day the Senate was to vote on the first major patent reform in 60 years—legislation known as the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act—that the first U.S. patent ever issued went to a Vermonter.
Some residents hold on to the idea that Pittsford's Hopkins sought patent protection in Philadelphia because Vermont was not yet a state, and he was unsure of the protection he would have as a patent holder who did not live in a recognized state. "There are a lot of people in Pittsford who won't give up on Samuel Hopkins," says Peg Armitage, who edits the newsletter for the Pittsford Historical Society and serves "by default" as the town historian. "I personally think Maxey was onto something, but I think a lot of people would be furious if the state took the plaque down."
Henry Paynter, a former professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who retired to Pittsford and was charmed by the town's connection to the inventor, wrote about Samuel Hopkins in a 1990 article for the magazine Invention and Technology. But after meeting with Maxey and reviewing his research in 1998, Paynter felt compelled to correct the record and added the new information about the Philadelphia inventor to the online version of his article.
John Dumville, who oversees Vermont's state-owned historic sites, says that he's been asking the town or the state highway crew to remove the plaque since at least the year 2000—following his review of Maxey's research. He even offered to have a new sign cast for the town that highlights some other Pittsford historic event. Dumville thinks the town should put the plaque in the Pittsford Historical Society's museum with an explanation—something that would serve as a lesson in how we unravel history. But he doesn't anticipate this happening soon. "The post holding the plaque is starting to rot, so at this point we'll probably just wait until it falls—or until the town comes to its senses," he says.
Dumville has also tried to have all references to Pittsford being the home of the first U.S. patent holder removed from state documents and websites. "But we haven't even been able to get the secretary of state or Department of Tourism to delete it," he says. "This is the local legend that never dies."