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Light bulbs, patents and genealogy

There’s a wonderful daily feature from the United States National Archives (NARA) called Today’s Document.

Once upon a time, you could get it on your phone or tablet, but software issues put an end to that, so now we need to read and view it daily online at the National Archives website.

Today, November 1, the document being featured is “Thomas Edison’s handwritten specifications for an Improvement in Electric Lamps, 11/01/1879”–a key part, NARA tells us, of Edison’s successful application for a patent for an “Improvement in Electric Lamps.” And, we are informed, “On January 27, 1880, Thomas Edison received the historic patent embodying the principles of his incandescent lamp that paved the way for the universal domestic use of electric light.”1

Edison patent signature

Now, it should come as no surprise that The Legal Genealogist loves patent records as part of our genealogical research. I’ve even done a webinar earlier this year on Inventing America: Records of the United States Patent Office for Legacy Family Tree Webinars that’s part of its subscribers-only series.2

That’s because these records are just so cool.

Issued under the authority of the U.S. Constitution itself — Article I, section 8, clause 8, gives gives Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful acts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective discoveries”3 — and federal statutes beginning in 1790,4 patent records can do a lot for us in our family histories:

• They can flesh out the story of an individual, since so many people appear as inventors, as witnesses for applications, as objectors to patents. The files provide insight into the activities of individuals on a professional and intellectual level that’s just not available anywhere else.

• Like the Edison patent, they can provide original signatures, of inventors and witnesses and lawyers and more.

• And they can link individuals and family members — all those lovely FAN club members (friends, associates and neighbors5) who could show up among witnesses and co-inventors. And since patents could be inherited, that alone can give rise to hints of family relationships in the records.

So on this anniversary of Edison’s light bulb application, take a look at your own family’s history and check to see if maybe somebody in your family filed for a patent somewhere in the past.

A place to start is Google Patents. Its advanced search page lets you search for specific words — and that can include names like “Thomas Edison.” That will help you find the patent number, and with that number, you can then go to the website of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and its search page to check for some of the documents that may be available there.

There’s more, of course, much that will be available only from the National Archives6 but this will give you a starting point.

Let there be light… on your family’s inventiveness.


  1. Thomas Edison’s Patent Application for the Light Bulb (1880),” U.S. National Arcives, ( : accessed 1 Nov 2018).
  2. Truth in advertising: I get a royalty if someone watches, buys or downloads one of my webinars from a Legacy subscription.
  3. United States Constitution, Article I, section 8, clause 8; html version, Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institution ( : accessed 1 Nov 2018).
  4. “An act to promote the progress of useful arts,” 1 Stat. 109 (10 April 1790).
  5. See Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012).
  6. I did mention that webinar for more info, didn’t I? I thought I did…
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