Patent History Materials Index - Extracts from Address by George H. Knight about patents

Extracts from George H. Knight

Address and Memorial in Opposition to the Bill to Amend the Statutes Relating to Patents

Cincinnati, 1879


William Woodworth

The revolution in the production of flooring boards, by the invention of William Woodworth, is within the memory of men still in the vigor of business life. Of this important invention, Mr. Seth C. Staples remarked that "it introduced a new era. The process of planing, tonguing, and grooving boards was well known to mechanics before, to be tedious and laborious. Apprentices were set to planing, and even then it was difficult to get the board of precise dimensions throughout. Then there was one particular tool used for tonguing, and another for grooving [where such refinement of structure was resorted to; -- it was generally dispensed with, on account of the trouble and cost.] Altogether, a smart man could, perhaps, prepare from ten to fifteen planks per day. Most mechanics did not believe it possible that the work could be done in any other way. They would not buy the right of Woodworth. He was obliged to erect a machine [to demonstrate the working efficacy of his device.]"

Even in the early years of this invention, it was conceded that it would face, tongue, groove, and gauge forty boards, while the most skillful carpenter could do one; and that it would do it more exactly, and would run all day and all night long, if necessary. In fact, it was instrumental in causing the use of tongued and grooved flooring -- with all its manifold advantages of absolute accuracy, air-tight joints, secret-nailing, and so forth -- to become of universal, instead of extremely rare and exceptional application.

Now, what happened to William Woodworth, is told in the touching narrative of his son, William W. Woodworth, who says that his father, "while engaged in perfecting his discovery, was obliged to apply for pecuniary aid; and procured assistance from James Strong only by the sacrifice of an assignment of one-half his right to the invention. That, after obtaining his patent, Woodworth and Strong were obliged to incur ruinous expenses, in bringing their machine into public notice and favor. That, embarrassed by the opposition of builders, and especially of joiners, as well as with debts and with heavy losses by fire, the work, as was supposed, of incendiaries instigated by enemies; and threatened with litigation; they were forced to enter into ruinous compromises, which entailed great difficulties in subsequent efforts to dispose of their franchise. Such was the condition of the enterprise, when, on the 9th of February, 1839, the inventor, Woodworth, died in the city of New York, "in poverty," just eleven years after the grant of his patent. On this public benefactor and real martyr, proponents, who are the friends of the inventor, would have had his country twice called for collection of its little bill. Well might the inventor say, like one of old: "If this be my country's justice, it is like Roman gratitude; the recipient sinks beneath its weight!"


Obed Hussey

Hussey patented, in the year 1833, the scalloped knife or cutter, which, in connection with the open guard-finger subsequently devised and patented by him, finally solved the problem of the harvesting machine. One scarcely knows whether most to admire the extreme simplicity, one would almost say obviousness, of these contrivances, their admirable efficiency, or the length of time in which mankind waited and worked, seemingly in vain, for the solution of the problem. Yet, for some years after the invention and exhibition of the completed invention, so slow was the community to recognize the boom, that by the year 1850 the whole manufacture of reapers did not exceed a hundred or so.

In 1878, the manufacture of reapers and mowers, in the United States alone, is believed to have exceeded 200,000. Without these machines, the vast crops of this year would have rotted in the fields. It would have been utterly impossible to procure laborers enough to secure the crop by the old-time means.

Those who have followed this statement to the present point will be prepared to learn that the experiences of the father of the American harvesting machine was no exception to the fact, that

Great men have seldom had great recompense
Epaminondas saved his Thebes, and died,
Scarce leaving even his funeral expenses.
George Washington had thanks, and nought beside,
Save that all-cloudless glory which few men's is.

Upon procurement, in 1847, of the patent for his open guard, which unlocked the mystery of machine harvesting, Hussey proceeded to introduce the invention into general use, by sending machines into different parts of the country, and personally visiting most of the grain-growing States for that purpose. He also attended agricultural fairs, to exhibit and explain his invention. He advertised extensively in periodicals devoted to agriculture, and in newspapers having a general circulation among farmers.

About 1853 he visited Europe. He thereby greatly raised the reputation of the machine and of American ingenuity, but became poorer. On his return from Europe, he devoted himself, with great assiduity, to the manufacture and introduction of his machine into use, and found demand for it greatly increased. His manufacturing business continued to improve until 1855, when he made 521 machines, the largest number he ever manufactured in one season; but he could not sell more than two-thirds of those machines, owing to the competition of others of far more ample manufacturing and pecuniary resources, who met him in every market, and sold his improvements without license, and without compensating him. From this period, the competition of others having more capital and better facilities for manufacturing and selling than he had, completely paralyzed his business, so that his manufacture dwindled down, until in the year 1859 he made but ten machines, and in 1860 but 19 machines. Owing to the pirating of his invention, and the, to him, disastrous effects resulting, he, in the year 1856, took legal advice as to the course to pursue to protect his rights. He was recommended by counsel to surrender his patent for re-issue, with specifications and claims, more adequately stating his invention. This course he accordingly adopted, and his patent was re-issued in three divisions. By an oversight, such as is common, and, apparently, unavoidable in original specifications, the all-important opening at the rear of the guard was described and claimed as situated "on top" of the guard, whereas, in fact, it was soon found it would work, with at least equal effect, on the under side.

Certain manufacturers deemed they saw here an opportunity to evade the claim and acted accordingly. The surrender and re-issue -- under the interpretation of the law made by tribunals -- nollied all existing infringements, and trespassers had here an opportunity to escape scot free, but as they manifested no disposition to discontinue the trespasses, and in fact bid him defiance, he had no recourse but to enter into litigation or surrender all his dearly purchased rights, acquired at the expense of so much toil and so many sacrifices. A quarter of a century of the best years of his life had slipped away and the goal seemed as far as ever from his grasp.

Having secured his thus amended patents he entered suit against the Honorable Cyrus H. McCormick, at that time the largest infringer of his patent. The suit was stoutly and persistently contested. A large amount of testimony was taken and the case argued for defense with extraordinary ability and zeal. Nothing that money or professional skill could fairly do to break down the patent was left undone. But the decision was finally rendered in his favor, the patent triumphantly sustained, and on his offering to license the parties they acceded and thereafter worked under his patent.

Hussey, in his application for extension, stated that many tried to evade his patent by using parts of the invention. That Messrs. Whiteley, Fassler and Kelly, and Andrew Whiteley, of Springfield, Ohio, appeared to be managers of a league against him; and that parties feared to take licenses of him, because of the expensive litigation which was rendered necessary to maintain the patent, so as to make the right of any pecuniary value, and justify the payment of the license fee. So onerous had these controversies been, that the patentee, at the close of the fourteen years of his second patent, and nearly thirty years from his invention of the scalloped cutter, testified, under oath, that "Litigation expenses had swallowed up all his profits." We thus find this great inventor, in the evening of his eminently useful life, like so many of his predecessors of the same inventive rank, in a condition little above destitution.

Elias Howe, Jr.

The story of Elias Howe, Jr. (the James Watt of the sewing machine) is best related in the inventor's simple narrative; he says: "I commenced the invention of my sewing machine as early as 1841; when I was twenty-two years old, and a machinist by trade; being then dependent upon my daily labor for the support of myself and family. I could not devote my attention to the subject during the working hours of the day; but I thought upon it when I could, day and night. It grew upon me till in 1844, I felt impelled to yield my whole time to it. I was then poor, but with promises of aid from my friend George Fisher, I thereafter devoted myself exclusively to the construction and practical completion of my machine. I worked alone in the upper room of my friend's house, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. I finished my first machine by May, 1845. I soon tested the practical success, by sewing with it all the principal seams in two suits of clothes, one for myself and one for Mr. Fisher. Our clothes wore as well as any hand sewing. I have my first machine still, and it will now sew as good a seam as any sewing machine known to me. .... My papers were filed as a caveat in the patent office, September 22nd, 1845. I completed my application for my patent May 27th, 1846, and at the same time conveyed one-half of my invention and patent, if obtained, to my friend Mr. Fisher, for five hundred dollars, in fact, though a much larger sum was named in the deed, on his suggestion. My patent was issued September 10th, 1846.

"I made a third machine [his second had been deposited as a model in the Patent Office], which I tried to get into use on terms satisfactory to myself and Mr. Fisher. After my patent was obtained, Mr. Fisher declined to aid me further. I then owed him about two thousand dollars, and I was also in debt to my father, to whom I conveyed the remaining half of my patent, for one thousand dollars, September 21st, 1846. Having parted with my whole title, and being in debt, and having no means for manufacturing machines, I was much embarrassed, and did not know what to do.

"My brother, Amasa B. Howe, suggested that my invention might succeed in England, where, if patented, it would be wholly under my control; and, on my behalf, with means borrowed of my father, my brother took my third machine to England, to do the best he could with it. He succeeded, November, 1846, in selling my machine and invention to one William Thomas, of London, to be used in his own business, for two hundred and fifty pounds in cash, and a verbal agreement, by Mr. Thomas, to patent my invention in England, in his own name; and, if it should prove successful, to pay me three pounds royalty on each machine made or sold under his patent. Mr. Thomas also agreed to employ me in adapting my machine to his work (making gaiter-boots, stays, etc.), at three pounds per week wages. Mr. Thomas obtained a patent for my machine in England, dated December 1st, 1846, and I went to London, to enter his employ, in February, 1847. I then made several machines adapted to his work, with various modifications and improvements, for that purpose. Mr. Thomas having obtained his patent for my invention, and having received the benefit of my skill in adapting my machine for his peculiar kind of work, ceased to be my friend, if he ever had been such,and I was discharged from his employment.

"While working for Mr. Thomas, I had at his request, sent for my wife and three children, and they had joined me in London. I had also, at Mr. Thomas' suggestion, endorsed a hundred pound note, on which I was afterwards sued and arrested; but I was finally released on taking the poor debtor's oath.

"By small loans from my fellow mechanics and by pawning what few articles the English law allowed a poor debtor to keep, I managed to live with my family in London, until, through friendly representations from some American acquaintances I found there, the captain of an American packet was induced to take my wife and children home to the United States upon credit; and they sailed for New York in the winter of 1848-49. I was then alone and extremely poor, in a foreign land. My invention was patented and in successful use in England, but without any profit to me and wholly out of my control. I could do nothing to enforce my rights against Mr. Thomas, who had ample means, and I had none.

"In the spring of 1849, indebted to a Scotch mechanic for a steerage passage home, I returned to the United States, poorer, if possible, than when I left.

"On my return I found my wife and children very destitute; all their personal effects, except what they had on, being still detained to secure the payment of their passage home. My wife was sick, and died in ten days after my arrival.

["Unconscious Users"]

"During my absence in England a considerable number of sewing machines, embracing my invention, had been made and put into operation in different parts of the United States; some of them by the procurement of Mr. Fisher, or under rights derived from him; but most of them without such right, and being clear infringements of my patent."

Mr. Howe then relates how -- having obtained an agreement from his father in the summer of 1849 to re-convey to him the half interest in the patent -- he tried to induce Mr. Fisher to join him in enforcing his patent against infringers who would not pay for it --and how Mr. Fisher declined doing so -- and how such declination, coupled with his own "well-known poverty and embarrassment," emboldened these parties to refuse "any satisfactory settlement."

We have now reached the darkest hour in the experience of an ill-used hero and martyr. Eight weary years had slipped away, and we see this benefactor of his age and country penniless and sunk in debt, with his three motherless children. It is remembered that he found his young wife wick on his return to his native shore and that she died ten days after his arrival -- that she and the little ones were destitute, and that she had been unable to redeem their scanty wardrobe, held as security for their passage money. We are not informed of the nature of his wife's sickness, but who can doubt that it was in great part due to her privations and anxieties, the cruel bitter fruit of all their high aspirations and devoted sacrifices?

'Tis the vile daily drop on drop that wears
The heart out, like the stone, with petty cares.

Four years had passed since the young, just married, Cambridgeport machinist proudly carried his model to Boston for the purpose of procuring a patent, and at this period of the sad narrative, it is now in the year of grace 1849 (at the very Egyptian midnight of Elias Howe, Junior's, troubles) that brother Storrow would have had the nation that has pocketed a million dollars of its inventors' hard earnings, and derived untold wealth from Howe's invention, present its demand for his money or the life of his patent!

Howe adds:

"At the time when I obtained my patent I was wholly inexperienced in business transactions of any kind; and I had no conceptions of the usual practices of unscrupulous speculators in or infringers of patent rights, of which, however, I have since had bitter experience."

Even after the lapse of fourteen years from the time when he took his model to Boston, and nearly nineteen years from his first labors on the invention, Howe writes:

"I have hitherto failed to obtain any compensation for my invention from Mr. Thomas, in England, though he has recovered heavy damages there against infringers, and has already realized a large income for licenses, at a high royalty, under his patent for my invention, and I am now advised that my claim against him must be maintained, if at all, by a long and expensive suit at law, of doubtful result.["]

Jethro Wood

On July 1st, 1814, Jethro Wood received his patent for the Cast-Iron Plow, which was so largely instrumental in making agriculture possible in the early settlement of the Western States. This is an invention of great and acknowledged value; insomuch that a bill passed the House of Representatives, July 7th, 1870, "For the Relief of the heirs of Jethro Wood, the Inventor of the Modern Plow." This bill, which never became a law, is worded as follows:

"Whereas Jethro Wood, of Cayuga county, New York, the inventor of the Cast-Iron Plow, now universally used in this country, died in poverty, after devoting his fortune and his life to the introduction of his art: And, whereas, few men have conferred a greater benefit on mankind than he did, by the invention and practical application of this improvement." Then follows the appropriation of twenty-five thousand dollars to his heirs; a donation which, to this day, they have never received.

Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney, of Massachusetts, while teaching school in Georgia, devised the cotton gin; the invention which has long been accredited, and truly so, with giving rise to the production of our greatest export. The device was, of course, patented, but was so persistently and shamelessly infringed, that the inventor never received any profit. Whitney patented the cotton gin in 1793. He received, on account of the invention, about $50,000, every cent of which was spent in defending his patent, so that actually he was, himself, benefited not one iota by his invention, but infinitely harmed, because it wasted, without remuneration, the best years of his life.

An eminent attorney, Mr. Seth C. Staples, in an address before a federal tribunal about thirty years ago, remarked: "I recollect, very well, when I was a small boy, my mother purchased raw cotton for 2s. and 6d. per pound, and I used to help her pick it winter evenings. Now you can purchased an article, picked as clean as possible, for 6 cents per pound. I, myself, heard Mr. Whitney say, when riding through the country, just before his death, when he was laboring under the disease which he had contracted while endeavoring to maintain his rights, that he would never advise any man afterwards to take out a patent.

Whitney's difficulties in enforcing his rights were rendered more onerous by the avowed prejudice against patents, entertained by the tribunals of that day.

The experiences of Whitney constitute an admirable typical case. The cotton gin suddenly supplanted the labor of thousands of hands; it absolutely destroyed an industry which occupied nearly whole populations during a large part of the year; but what was the effect upon the people? In eight short years following the introduction of the gin the production of American cotton rose from 130,000 pounds to 18,000,000 pounds. In 1792 the quantity of cotton which a planter could raise was limited to the quantity which his hands could pick the seed from. A man could cultivate an hundred fold more than he could pick the seeds from between harvest-tide and planting. The cotton gin relieved him from the labor of seed picking and enabled him to devote his labor to cultivation alone, with the result above noted. During the ten years from 1800 to 1810, the production rose from 18,000,000 to 90,000,000 pounds. By the year 1859 the annual production of American cotton had reached 2,441,000,000 pounds -- more than 16,000 fold the yield of 1792!

By 1810 the market price of cotton had fallen one-half; yet, so remunerative was the business, that the planters of Maryland and Virginia experienced a fever of migration to the South, to engage in the cotton culture, similar to the gold excitement of 1849.

This great industry and source of wealth, which gave cheap clothing to the people, and which, without exaggeration, gave to cotton the title of "King," was mainly attributable to an invention out of which the inventor was not enriched one cent.


<< Return to Patent History Materials Index