222 years of patent law

Happy anniversary to US patent law

Today is the 222nd anniversary of the first U.S. patent law, adopted on April 10, 1790, by the United States Congress.1

First US patent, 1790

The very first patent ever issued under the authority of the law was to Samuel Hopkins of the City of Philadelphia, dated 31 July 1790, for a new process for making potash.2

Like copyright law, patent law is expressly authorized by the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”3

Today, patents are handled by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, established by statute.4

So… you’re sitting there saying to yourself… and what the heck does this have to do with genealogy?

The fact is, anybody can apply for a patent, there have been thousands and thousands of patents issued, and your ancestor — or mine — could easily have been one of those anybodies whose name is on one of those patents. And in this technological information-at-our fingertips age, it’s easy to find out if that’s true.

One option is the Patent Office’s own web-based search system, with its Patent Full-Text Databases. You can enter all kinds of search options (last name, first name, patent language, date, state where the inventor lived and more) and choose between newer patents (1976 to present) and all patents (1790 to present) just as a few of the choices. If you come up with a hit, the system will offer you the choice between full text (if it’s available) and images of the patent.

My father's 1959 patent

Another, perhaps even easier option is Google Patents, which has both simple search and advanced search options. I went ahead and entered my father’s name in the simple search, hit the search button, and practically fell off my chair. I knew my father had worked his entire life as a chemical engineer but had no clue whatsoever that he got one patent in 1959 for a method of refining by withdrawing feed liquors from a centrifuge5 — don’t ask me what that means; I went to law school, remember? they don’t teach that stuff in law school! — and another with a co-worker in 1967 for a hydrogen generator.6

Okay, you say, but my ancestors were all farmers. Farmers weren’t getting patents! Ah, don’t be so hasty. There have been tinkerers since there have been humans, and your family tinkerer might just have applied for a patent anyway. That’s what I found when I did some research for my brother-in-law last year and discovered that his farmer-and-timberman grandfather had started a side business as a retiree selling additives for silage. He’d gotten tired of the usual methods for dispensing the additives, and invented — and patented — one of his own.7

But, you now see, your ancestor didn’t ever get a patent, so what good is this to you? How about finding out more about the times your ancestor lived in?

Wright Brothers' flying machine patent

Did your family live near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, or Dayton, Ohio? Check out the Wright Brothers’ patent for the airplane.8

Did your ancestors live near the Elizur Booth family of Canandaigua, New York, in the 1840s? Look at his patent for a threshing machine your family might have seen or even used,9

Any of your family work in a cotton gin? George L. Rollins of Bridgewater, Mass., got a patent in 1888 for a feeder for a cotton gin.10

Anybody deal with manufactured yarn? George S. Bradford of Sandlake, New York, for a patent in 1857 for a process to manufacture and card yarn from mixed cotton and wool.11

And for a lot of us, we need to remember our European roots either — since we’re also a nation of immigrants. So Kimberly Powell reminds us that we should look at the records of the European patent office as well.12

Adding color and context to our family’s history is one of the best parts of genealogy, and patents can do just that. Go ahead. Take a look! You might be surprised at what you find in your own family or at least in the neighborhood.


  1. Act of 10 April 1790, 1 Stat. 109.
  2. See “First U.S. Patent Issued Today in 1790,” U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, posted 31 Jul 2001 (http://www.uspto.gov/news : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
  3. U.S. Constitution, Article I, § 8, clause 8.
  4. See 35 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.
  5. Patent no. 2,869,779, issued 20 Jan 1959 to Hugo H. Geissler; digital images, Google Patents (http://www.google.com/patents/ : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
  6. U.S. Patent No. 3,350,176, issued 31 Oct 1967 to Hugo H. Geissler and Stanley S. Kurpit; digital images, Google Patents (http://www.google.com/patents/ : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
  7. U.S. Patent No. 3,602,394, issued 31 Aug. 1971 to Thomas F. McCune; digital images, Google Patents (http://www.google.com/patents/ : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
  8. U.S. Patent No. 821,393, issued 22 May 1906 6to Orville and Wilbur Wright; digital images, Google Patents (http://www.google.com/patents/ : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
  9. U.S. Patent No. 4,655, issued 25 Jul 1846 to Elizur L. Booth; digital images, Google Patents (http://www.google.com/patents/ : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
  10. U.S. Patent No. 391,195, issued 16 Oct 1888 to George L. Rollins; digital images, Google Patents (http://www.google.com/patents/ : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
  11. U.S. Patent No. 16,903, issued 31 Mar 1857 to George S. Bradford.; digital images, Google Patents (http://www.google.com/patents/ : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
  12. Kimberly Powell, Using Patents to Enrich Your Family History, posted 20 Mar 2012, About.com Genealogy (http://genealogy.about.com/ : accessed 9 Apr 2012).
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8 Responses to 222 years of patent law

  1. Trish McGuinn says:

    Thank you for posting about patents! I was aware of a family story that a brother of my great-great grandfather had invented the vending machine. I thought it was interesting, but figured, as most oral traditions go, that this was wishful thinking on someone’s part. Lo and behold, I entered his name in the Google Patents search box, and there he was! He had not one, but two, patents related to improvements to vending machines, as well as patents for improvements to turnstiles, hair barrettes and coin-changing machines. And here I thought he was just a successful barber in Charlotte, NC.
    I recently started following genealogy blogs, and in my enthusiasm, I signed up for lots of feeds to my RSS reader. I have been steadily winnowing those down, to blogs that are worth my time to read. Your blog is right up there at the top of my list. Each post not only clearly explains legal terms and issues, but also can open up avenues of research that I had not considered.
    So, many thanks, for the blog, and for helping to give Albert K. Collins the credit he is due! Trish, Charleston, SC

  2. Celia Lewis says:

    One more on my list of areas to research… Thanks Judy!

  3. Debbie Mieszala says:

    Thanks for a fun article on a record type I have enjoyed working with in my family research.

    A few research tips. Ancestry has a patent database. Their name search predates that at USPTO. It also allows search by place name or surname and location. On Google Patents, sometimes hits are found when the inventor’s name is put in the keyword box instead of the name search box. Check for U.S. inventors in patent websites for other countries, since their U.S. patent protection only extended to the U.S. The Canadian patent database (Canadian Intellectual Property Office site) has many patents by U.S. inventors. Check for your father there. Their name search is a little more temperamental. For example, if a middle name appears in the patent, and you only use first and last name in the search, they won’t always show up in results. One way to avoid the problem is to search by surname only (works best if uncommon).

    I will be presenting a session on patent research at the Indiana Genealogical Society’s Spring Conference on April 28th in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Shameless plug on a favorite topic.)

  4. Kelly says:

    I was going through your old posts as I just found your site, and I came across this article. Well, I come from a family on inventors, starting in the 1800s, and it was great to search through this database and find theirs inventions! Thanks!

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