Historical Markers
Samuel Hopkins Historical Marker
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Samuel Hopkins

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
2nd and Arch Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
July 29, 2002

Behind the Marker

In the 1700s, there was no single means to protect intellectual property in Pennsylvania or Britain's other North American colonies. Following British practice, colonial legislatures issued patents that gave persons the sole right to exploit their inventions within the colony for a limited period, typically fourteen years.

After the Revolution, state legislatures continued the colonial procedure, because regulating inventions was not among the powers granted to Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Thus, to protect their creations, American inventors had to petition state legislatures separately, a cumbersome and expensive process. Some enlisted influential lawmakers and citizens to lobby on their behalf. They also sought support from the growing American intellectual and scientific community by presenting their inventions to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which for a time was a national repository for drawings, plans, and models of many new devices.

Charles Willson Peale's drawing of Mr. Cram's fan chair, presented to the American Philosophical Society in 1786.
Charles Willson Peale's drawing of Mr. Cram's fan chair, presented to the American...
In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention adopted the so-called patent clause unanimously and without argument. Since there is virtually no discussion of the provision in the delegates' surviving notes, historians have no proof that they did so to promote American ingenuity. The fight between marker John Fitch and James Rumsey over who first invented the steamboat, however, was no doubt on their minds, for on August 22, 1787, Fitch demonstrated his invention on the Delaware River to spectators that included Convention delegates. Fitch claimed in his diary that most of the delegates were present and that many rode on his vessel. There is no evidence that Fitch lobbied the delegates for a federal patent system, but he had the opportunity to do so. He also had firsthand experience of the problems in securing patents from individual states.

The new federal Constitution gave Congress the power "to promote the progress of the useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Congress exercised that power in the Patent Act of 1790, creating a board consisting of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General to issue patents for "sufficiently useful and important" inventions.

The first patent approved by the board was issued on July 31, 1790, to Philadelphia Quaker Samuel Hopkins for his method for producing pearl and potash. The precious document giving Hopkins exclusive control of his process for fourteen years was signed by President George Washington and Attorney General Edmund Randolph and issued by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

Image of the first patent granted by the United States Government.
Patent No. 1, the very first American patent, issued on July 31, 1790 to Samuel...
Potash (potassium carbonate) was a versatile product that played an important role in eighteenth and nineteenth century life. Often referred to as "black gold," it was vital to America's economy and an important export, for it was used in baking, dying, and the making of glass, gunpowder, soap, and woolen cloth. Traditionally farmers made potash by boiling down the ashes of hardwood logs in a large iron cauldron filled with water. Hopkins discovered how to produce a greater volume of higher-quality potash by burning raw ashes in a furnace of his own design, and then dissolving and boiling the ashes in water.

Hopkins hoped to capitalize on his invention by licensing his process, which he marketed in a pamphlet, An Address to the Manufacturers of Pot and Pearl Ash, with an Explanation of Samuel Hopkins' Method of Making the Same; Together with Drawings of a Furnace and c. and c. His plan was to build furnaces for potential licensees in return for an initial payment of $50 or a half ton of potash, to be followed by $150 (or one and one-half tons of potash) over a five-year license term.

Many farmers liked Hopkins' method, but they could not afford the licensing costs as potash was only a part-time venture for most. Hopkins did build potash furnaces for several landowners, but he never made a profit. Chastened but not defeated, Hopkins continued his researches and, in 1813 and 1817, received patents for two new methods of producing "flour of mustard"-that is, the ground mustard seed that is used to make the condiment.

Model of first steamboat.
Steamboat model made by John Fitch, 1785.
The national patent board created in 1790 soon bogged down under the volume of applications. Under the 1790 law, the board had to determine whether a new invention was useful and novel. This burdensome task was a significant departure from the prevailing British and European registration laws, which generally only required inventors to apply and pay a fee to receive a patent. The American board members took their responsibilities seriously, rejected many applications, and issued fifty-seven patents between 1790 and 1793. Deeply concerned about Europe's technological superiority, and the need to stimulate American innovation, critics pushed for new laws.

In the Patent Act of 1793, American lawmakers replaced the examination system modeled after British registration procedure with one that reduced the burden on the federal government. The number of patents increased dramatically. The Patent Office issued approximately 10,000 patents over the next forty years. Because the applications for those inventions were only minimally examined, however, the legal validity of many of those patents and the importance of the discoveries they represent were questionable.

In 1836, Congress again overhauled the system, putting in place the basic procedure that survives today. Technical specialists now examined patent applications to determine whether the invention represented an advance over the "prior art." Interested persons could challenge a patent application, and inventors now had the right to legally challenge an examiner's decision.

The United States soon led the world in technological innovations. Today, most research is conducted by highly educated specialists working in sophisticated, well funded corporate and university research departments. The drive to invent, however, also continues among the tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and amateurs, who strive to improve and to amuse in barns, basements, dorm rooms, garages, kitchens, labs, living rooms, and offices across the country. Today, the U.S. Patent Office issues more than 100,000 patents each year.
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