Patent History Materials Index - Patent Materials from Scientific American, vol 69 new series (Jul 1893 - Dec 1893)

Scientific American, v 69 (ns) no 3, p 39, 15 July 1893

The History of Patents

To the Practical Engineer (London) we are indebted for the following facts and anecdotes relative to early patents, the names of many discoverers, and the date of the inventions: While the lawyers and the treasury were wrangling over who could consume the greatest amount of seed corn wrung from inventors, about the year 1775 the treasury made one of its fiscal errors (so costly to the nation), which had an important bearing on patents of invention. Just as it shamefully overtaxes impoverished inventors now, without rhyme or reason, on a fiscal error which has lost it (or rather the public) £50,000,000 since 1852, so in the year 1775 it tried taxing the American colonies in the matter of tea entering Boston harbor. The colonies would not pay its exaction. and, fortunately, were far enough off to resist. A war followed, lasting many years, until on September 3, 1783, we had to acknowledge the independence of the colonies, and swallow the unpleasant fact that the fiscal error of the treasury had lost us America. One effect of this separation of the colonies was that all the old "£4 16s 6d extra fee" colonial patents running in America were, of course, canceled thereby. New patent laws were required in America in place of the old law, deceased, and the outcome was the creation, in 1790-1793, under George Washington, by Jefferson, of the best patent law that has ever existed -- a law which has not only scattered untold benefits throughout America, but from which we in this country are also receiving reflected benefits. The fundamental principle of the American act is that "inventors and authors have equal and similar claims to the protection of the legislature" -- in other words, that protection to inventors should be valid, and not a sham, and that lawyers and the treasury should not be allowed to plunder them. It is not difficult to realize why America took such care to cut absolutely clear from our chancery system. It would result from the fine object lesson chancery had previously given the world in their treatment of James Watt. If our patent system had been anything but a delusion and a snare, it would have protected an inventor such as James Watt, who gave the world the steam engine. It did nothing of the kind, but let him in for ruinous lawsuits, that ate up the whole of his profits for the natural term of his patent. What likelihood could there possibly be of protection for any humbler inventor, after such treatment of Watt? None whatever. The protection sold by the British Patent Office was evidently a farce, a very costly farce, too, as about £400 per patent for the United Kingdom. To such a miserable strait had the wrangling lawyers brought our patent laws at this period.

The establishment of the American patent system in 1790 was the protest of business men against the violation of all the true interests of inventors by lawyers, who could not appreciate them. The movement was to invention what Luther's movement was to the abuses of the old Catholic Church: the spirit of invention was preserved, but the mummery was thrown aside. Inventors should remember that date -- 1790 -- as that when invention asserted its freedom. To avoid the old chancery trickery over worthless titles, leading to endless lawsuits, the American system introduced the preliminary examination system, and granted only patents which were as valid and safe from lawsuits as they could possibly be made. It gave these valid titles with business dispatch, instead of with endless legal delay, it printed its specifications in English, on paper, so that they could easily be consulted by inventors, instead of "engrossing them on skins, in black hand, in the Latin language," which was only fooling with invention. It gave 17 instead of 14 years for the duration of a patent, or 21 per cent more time. It charged only £7, instead of £400 for a United Kingdom patent, or only one fifty-seventh part of the lawyer's price. Here was abuse done away with at a stroke, but the effect on the fee hunters of chancery and the treasury would make them hate the American patent system as the Pope hated Luther. First, they would hate it because they would feel that for 167 years they had betrayed their trust, and had been plundering instead of encouraging invention. Secondly, they would hate it because the business men at the head of the American Patent Office would be no party to the issue of worthless titles to patents out of which the lawyers could make "six or twelve fold law costs" in subsequent trials. Third, they would hate it because, if America issued patents at one fifty-seventh of their charges, it demonstrated beyond question that fifty-six parts out of the 57 charged had never been other than shameless extortion. Fourth, above all they would hate it from the fiscal error of the treasury having lost the American colonies, so that nothing coming from America could possibly have any merit in it whatever. The effect of this deep hatred of all things American 100 years ago has blinded us to the intrinsic merit of America's patent system, and withheld from the English people that which in their own interest they ought to have had from the very first.

The American patent system, working in the interest of the public, demonstrated to them its commercial value in the first few years. In 1791 Fitch, and in 1796 Fulton, invented practical steamboats. In 1794 Whitney invented the cotton gin. Cotton planting at that time was languishing, and Whitney's invention made it exceedingly prosperous. Congress voted sums to assist invention, and at Washington a fine museum was erected, containing models and records of considerable public interest. When General Ross took Washington, in 1812, and burnt the Capitol, it was proposed to treat the Patent Museum after the same fashion. "A loaded cannon was trained upon it, when its director, Dr. Thornton, put himself before the gun, and in a frenzy of excitement exclaimed, 'Are you Englishmen, or only Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent office, the depository of the ingenuity and inventiveness of the American nation, in which the whole world is interested. Would you destroy it? If so, fire away and let the charge go through my body. The effect is said to have been magical upon the soldiers, and to have saved the Patent Office from destruction." Our soldiers would report this incident when they returned home to England; news would be constantly reaching our persecuted inventors of the success of friends and relatives in America, under its patent system; many of our ablest inventors would leave this country for America in consequence, while a general feeling of unrest under our vicious, lawyer-ridden system would spread far and wide in this country. The knowledge among inventors that justice is granted them in America, and withheld them here, has led to the frequent forcing of the patent question on Parliament during the century. The 1790 prejudice against the American system has, however, always been sufficient to continue gross abuses in our patent system down to the present day. We have seen what came of a fiscal error of the treasury in 1775. Is it not about time it dropped the present one paralyzing invention?

During the 167 years from 1623 to 1790, the discouragement of the chancery system was such that only one useful invention appeared at an average of 3 1/4 years interval.

The best list of useful invention that can be made out for this period only gives 14 of such for the first 100 years, and 37 for the remaining 67 years, up to 1790. Many of these inventions were not patented under chancery at all. They are as follows:

1623 Mannsell's glas patent
1630 Ramsey's fire engine patent
1643 Torricelle's barometre
1649 Pascal's hydraulic press
1650 Otto Gueriche's air pump
1657 Huygen's pendulum clock
1664 Hill's breech loader
1672 Wooden railroads
1676 Barlow's repeaters
1688 Papin's steam engine patent
1698 Savery's steam engine patent
1716 Floating docks
1721 Halley's diving apparatus
1723 Streets lighted with hydrogen gas.
1727 Leupold's high pressure engine
1732 Ledemour's pump
1736 Hull's steam tug
1738 Iron rails nailed to wooden sleepers
1739 Emerson's wood preserving patent
1747 Watson's electric telegraph
1748 Paul's carding patent
1752 Franklin's lightning rod
1756 Strutt's stocking frame
1758 Dolland's achromatic telescope
1762 Wedgewood ware patented
1764 Blackley's tubular boilers
1765 Spedding's gas light
1767 Hargrave's spinning jenny
1768 Lace machinery
1769 Watt's steam engine patent
1769 Arkwright's spinning frame patent
1771 Crompton's mule patent
1774 Lesargis telegraph
1776 De Jouffrey's steamboat trial
1777 Bushnel's torpedo
1780 Pickard's crank patent
1780 Leblanc's artificial soda
1780 Burgand's argand burners
1783-4 Cort's iron patents
1784 Bramah's lock patent
1784 Montgolfier's balloon
1784 Watt's locomotive patent
1785 Cartwright's locomotive patent
1785 Arkwright's power loom patent
1786 Lebon's gas light
1787 Betancourt's electric telegraph
1787 Hamer's wool shearing
1787 Symington's steam engine patent
1788 Miller's steamboat trial
1789 Galvarni's [sic] batteries, etc.
1789 Present rails and wheels invented


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