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… for inventions and the like

So… last week, The Legal Genealogist tackled the difference between patents and deeds.

You know… the difference between a document evidencing a land transfer from the sovereign to a private owner (like the patent the U.S. government would issue when a homesteader finally proved up his or her claim) and a document evidencing a land transfer from one private owner to another (like the deed you and I probably got when we bought our homes).1

Now how about the difference between patents… and patents?

The one, of course, being those land documents.

And the others looking like this:

Patent, flying machine

Now I have addressed this in the past,2 but there’s a reason why it’s coming up again now.

It’s because Ancestry has just added two more patent databases to its collections — one of which made me smile because it’s just plain cool to see my baby brother’s patents listed on Ancestry. In addition to the U.S., Patent and Trademark Office Patents, 1790-1909 collection, we can now access two more collections: United States Patent and Trademark Office, U.S. Patents, 1970-2019; and International Patents, 1890-2020.

These kinds of patents, of course, evidence a “grant of some privilege, … or authority, made by the government … of a country to one or more individuals.”3 In this case, it’s the privilege granted by the law to the inventor to be the only one to take advantage of the patent for its term — originally 14 years.

The very first patent law passed here in the United States was adopted on 10 April 1790.4 And we were johnny-come-latelys. The first patent law anywhere, folks generally agree, was adopted in Venice in 1474.5

Originally, U.S. patents were limited to utility patents — processes, machines and the like. Design patents were added for ornamental designs in 1842, and plant patents as of 1930. The one millionth U.S. patent was issued in 1911; patent no. 10,000,000 in 2018.6

Now think about that. Ten million patents by 2018. That’s an awful lot of folks in our families who may have gotten a patent at one time or another. As I mentioned, my baby brother. Even my chemical engineer father got two: he got one patent in 1959 for a method of refining by withdrawing feed liquors from a centrifuge7 and another with a co-worker in 1967 for a hydrogen generator.8

We can now check Ancestry’s patent collections to see if our ancestors (or siblings or parents!) had a patent — and we can also use other options as well:

• the U.S. Patent Office’s own web-based search system, with its Patent Full-Text Databases. We 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. For any hit, the system offers the choice between full text (if it’s available) and images of the patent.

Google Patents, which has both simple search and advanced search options. The advanced search page has all the options, and there’s a help page for searching that database.

And of course this isn’t just an American notion, so don’t forget to check the patent offices elsewhere, and a great tool for that is the European Patent Office’s Global Patent Index. For European patents only, check out the EPO’s European Patent Register.

Patents are surprisingly wonderful genealogical tools. They can flesh out the stories of our family members, provide original signatures and link individuals together (as witnesses to a patent application, for example). And because there are so many of them — 10 million by 2018 just in the United States alone! — odds are we’ll find someone in our family in those records.

Check ’em out.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Those OTHER patents,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 2 Dec 2021).


Image: “Flying machine patent drawing by W.F. Quinby 10/5/1869,” U.S. National Archives, via

  1. Judy G. Russell, “Of patents and deeds,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 Nov 2021 ( : accessed 2 Dec 2021).
  2. Ibid., “Patents and patents,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 11 Dec 2014.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 877, “patent.”
  4. “An Act to promote the progress of useful Arts,” 1 Stat. 109 (10 April 1790).
  5. See generally Wikipedia (, “History of patent law,” rev. 16 Nov 2021.
  6. See “Patents through History,” 10 Million Patents, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ( : accessed 2 Dec 2021).
  7. Patent no. 2,869,779, issued 20 Jan 1959 to Hugo H. Geissler; digital images, Google Patents ( : accessed 2 Dec 2021). No, don’t ask me what that means; I went to law school, remember? they don’t teach that stuff in law school!
  8. Ibid., U.S. Patent No. 3,350,176, issued 31 Oct 1967 to Hugo H. Geissler and Stanley S. Kurpit. Ditto as to what that is.
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