US patent system forms, April 10, 1790

-April 10, 2017

Love it or hate it, the United States patent system formed on April 10, 1790 when President George Washington signed the bill that laid the foundation of the modern American patent system. The bill marked the first time in America’s then-short history that a law gave inventors rights to their creations.

The 1790 law gave the Patent Board members the absolute power to grant a patent. The first board members included Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, who was considered the first administrator of the American patent system and the first patent examiner; Henry Knox, Secretary of War; and Edmund Randolph, Attorney General.

The Department of State had the responsibility for administering the patent laws, and fees for a patent were between $4 and $5, with the board deciding on the duration of each patent, not to exceed 14 years.

The bill defined the subject matter of a US patent as "any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon not before known or used."

Applicants were to provide a patent specification, a drawing, and, if possible, a model. After examining the application, the board members would issue a patent if they deemed the invention or discovery "sufficiently useful and important."

On July 31, 1790, Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia, received the first US patent for an improvement in "the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process."

Although Jefferson was on the Patent Board, he criticized the 1790 Patent Act as too restrictive and requiring an unreasonable amount of time. In part because of his urging, laws were revised in 1793 so that inventions no longer needed to be deemed as “sufficiently useful and important” to be granted a patent, which significantly reduced the examination process.

Patents bring to mind two different points of views: While sought after by some engineers, they are considered a plague on innovation by others. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, 325,979 patents were granted in the United States in 2015.

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For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on April 10, 2013 and edited on April 10, 2017.


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