This story traces the history of intellectual
property in America. Patents, trademarks and copyrights aren't an
American invention, though, as they originated in Europe.
The first patent ever
issued went to architect Filippo Brunelleschi of Florence, Italy,
for his method of transporting goods up the Arno River in 1421. The
patent was for a three-year period.
American patents were
originally issued by individual states. The first state patent
issued went to Samuel Winslow of Massachusetts in 1641 for his new
method of making salt. After Congress enacted federal patent laws in
1790, George Washington personally signed each patent, as was
customary at the time. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, an avid
inventor himself, became the first patent commissioner that same
year, even though he originally opposed patents because he
considered them to be an unfair monopoly.
The first federal
U.S. patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins of Vermont for his method
of making potash. The fee? A whopping $4! Today, patent fees average
Prior to having
patent numbers, patents contained the inventor's name and date of
the patent. When the patent office started issuing numbers in July
of 1836, there were already 10,000 patents issued without numbers. A
Mr. John Ruggles received U.S. Patent 1 for his "traction wheels."
Mary Kies is believed
to be the first woman to receive a patent; it was for her process of
weaving straw with silk in 1809. I use the word "believed" because
women were not allowed to own property during parts of the 1700s and
1800s. As a result, there may have been other women who received
patents, by using only their initials, prior to Mary Kies, while
other women simply filed for patents in their husband's name.
There were times in
the 1800s when slaves were not allowed to own property, and this
included intellectual property such as patents, trademarks and
copyrights. Thomas Jennings was a free man running a dry cleaning
business in New York City in 1821 when he became the first black man
to receive a patent; it was for a dry cleaning process. He used some
of his earnings from that patent to buy his family out of slavery.
Surprisingly, an 1861
law passed by the pro-slavery Confederate States of America granted
patent rights to slaves. Nine years later, the U.S. government
passed a law that gave all black men patent rights.
Sarah Goode owned a
furniture store in Chicago when she patented a cabinet bed in 1885,
becoming the first black woman to receive a U.S. patent.
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second column in this article]
The federal patent
laws that Congress enacted in 1790 also governed trademarks and
copyrights. A trademark is a word or symbol that identifies the
source of a product or company. The world's first trademark is
believed to be for two British chefs named Crosse & Blackwell in
1706. It is still in use today -- the trademark, that is, not the
Some of the more
memorable American trademarks have been based on people, such as the
leprechaun symbolizing Notre Dame's Fighting Irish, the Gerber baby
and the Morton Salt girl. Other trademarks have been based on
animals, such as the MGM lion, Smokey Bear and Borden's top
saleslady, Elsie the Cow. Trademarks don't need to be based on a
real person or animal to be effective, though, as Planters' Mr.
Peanut, Prudential's Rock of Gibraltar and the Pillsbury Doughboy
have all become permanently etched into our memories.
A copyright protects
literary works such as books, plays, articles, poems, songs, movies,
pictures and paintings. It lasts for the life of the author plus 70
Even a U.S. president
can receive a patent, a trademark or a copyright. George Washington
received a trademark for his brand of flour in 1772, and Abraham
Lincoln received a patent in 1849 for a device to help navigate
boats in shallow waters. Thomas Jefferson, the nation's most
successful presidential inventor, chose not to patent any of his
So how does one know
whether a product has been patented, trademarked or copyrighted?
A patented product contains the patent
number on the packaging; a trademarked product is shown with the
™ symbol or an "R" inside of a
circle, ®, if it's a registered
trademark; and copyrighted material contains a "C" inside of a
circle, ©, along with the year
and name of the copyright owner.
is written each week by Paul Niemann, who can be reached at
© Copyright Paul Niemann 2004
Last week's column in LDN:
"The inventor didn't regret missing
out on an $8 million fortune"