Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Of Presidents and Patents

I was surprised when I first learned that the initial bill for the establishment of the U.S. patent system was signed by President George Washington in 1790. I don’t know why I was surprised, but for some reason I thought that the national patent system would have been a later development.
This tidbit of knowledge came to mind again on Presidents’ Day, and in looking further, I found that the original Patent and Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution was proposed in 1787 by future President James Madison and never-to-be president Charles Pinckney. Madison apparently had a love for inventing, and Washington was supposedly inspired to support a national system by the efforts required of one George Rumsey to obtain patents from the individual states for his mechanical boat.
The first U.S. patent law authorized the secretary of state, secretary of war, and attorney general (at that time Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph, respectively), or any two of them, to grant a patent to an inventor if they deemed an invention or discovery “sufficiently useful and important.” By 1793, the process was considered to be too burdensome on the secretary of state, and the law was changed to eliminate examination; patents were thereafter granted simply upon submission of a written description, a model of the invention (if appropriate), and payment of a $30 fee. (Examination was reinstated in 1836.)
It is not surprising to see that Thomas Jefferson was involved in the implementation of the first federal patent laws. As a child visiting Monticello, I was fascinated by the breadth of his interests and creativity. In the entrance hall of the home is this sensational still working clock that has cannon balls hanging on both sides of the doorway that show the day of the week and the time. Although I don’t recall seeing it, I do remember the tour guide mentioning that he had invented a macaroni machine. So, surely Thomas Jefferson must have applied for and obtained patents on some of his inventions. To my surprise, Jefferson was never issued a patent. In fact, with one of his more important inventions, an improvement of the wooden plow, he openly encouraged the public duplication of the invention, claiming that it should be for the public good and not for the advancement of the inventor.
Actually, I found that Abraham Lincoln was the only president to hold a U.S. patent. In 1849, while serving as an Illinois congressman, Lincoln was issued a patent for “A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals.” Based on his own experience working on boats, Lincoln invented a set of bellows attached to the hull of a boat just below the water line. In shallow water, the bellows would be filled with air to float the boat higher in the water, thus escaping the traps of sandbars. Sadly, the invention was never commercialized. Apparently the added weight of the device actually increased the probability of running into sandbars, thus defeating the purpose of the invention. A model of the invention, carved by Lincoln himself, can be seen at the Smithsonian.
As I rambled through the history of our presidents and their connections with patents, I also learned that Millard Fillmore went to the patent office to study the drawings of the new cooking stove installed at the White House so that he could teach the cook how to use it. Vice President Tyler was playing marbles when he was told of President William Harrison’s deathfive years before the invention of “marble scissors” that allowed for the economical mass production of marbles. When President Garfield was shot in July of 1881, the doctors were unable to locate and remove the bullet lodged in the president’s chest. Alexander Graham Bell hurriedly tried to invent a metal detector but the gadget he developed was unsuccessful and Garfield died in September from internal hemorrhage and infection. (It was observed that the Bell device may not have worked because the president was on a bed with metal springs, but no one thought to move him.)

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