An Encapsulation of United States Patent History

The Constitution provided for a patent office in the same section that authorized Congress' power of taxation:

Article 1, Section 8, clause 8:
The Congress shall have 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;

The Patent Act of 1790 was passed with an initial three-person tribunal including the Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the Secretary of War. The first US patent was granted to Samuel Hopkins, a resident of Vermont for "Improvement, not known before such Discovery, in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process." The following are photographs of the original document and the resting place of Samuel Hopkins.

Click on the images for a full screen view.


The initial tribunal included military men who had other priorities. The process was lengthy and arduous. The Patent Act of 1793 simplified its predecessor and broadened the criteria for patent issuance from "not before known or used [and] sufficiently useful and important" to:

"Any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter and any new and useful improvement on any art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter".
In further streamlining the patent process, by 1800 the patent application began with a form specifically designed for the office; 1802 heralded the appointment of a director with scientific training who also embraced the mission of encouraging innovation. With expanding borders, a growing population, a more structured administrative environment, more educational access and the economic activity during the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760 - 1840), there was a marked uptick in patent issued.
The Patent Act of 1836 was the next substantive legislative development regarding patents. The requirement of applicants to include miniature model and the designation of a "patent examiner" indicated the overall increasing structure. After the Civil War, newly issued patents were printed in publications; soon multiple photolithographic copies were required with patent approval. These advancements were supported by technology but also had the dual benefit of facilitating information sharing beyond pulling the original document and replacing files in case of disaster (as there were major losses due to fires in 1836 and 1877).
Advancement in trade and travel resulted in greater concern for standardizing practices beyond national boundaries. While patent laws are national in nature, trade agreements may mimic them to reduce uncertainty for inventors and businesses. The 1883 Paris Convention for the protection of Industrial Property is one of the first broad scale markers towards fostering agreement about the protection of intellectual property globally. It is considered a precursor to the World Trade Organization's (WTO) TRIPS Agreement that defines IP internationally.
Decadal Patent Issuance:
Decade Number of Patents Issued
1790 - 1799 269
1800 - 1809 911
1810 - 1819 1,998
1820 - 1829 2,697
1830 - 1839 5,372
1840 - 1849 6,282
1850 - 1859 24,165
1860 - 1869 82,793
1870 - 1879 133,055
1880 - 1889 215,953
1890 - 1899 233,973
1900 - 1909 322,450
1910 - 1919 398,884
1920 - 1929 449,163
1930 - 1939 481,836
1940 - 1949 345,898
1950 - 1959 459,248
1960 - 1969 616,238
1970 - 1979 727,513
1980 - 1989 795,336
1990 - 1999 1,301,814
2000 - 2010 1,890,192
2010 - 2019 3,278,144


Throughout its 230+ years of history, there has been continual refinements to patents stemming from case law, process improvements, international influences, and statutory amendments. What's considered a major change versus a minor one could be a matter of opinion. Having said that, the Patent Act of 1952 required the inventor to describe how their creation could be infringed upon and that all patents be “non-obvious”. In 1982, Congress created the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to hear all appeals regarding patents. 2011 ushered a switch from “first to invent” to “first inventor to file”


The Patent Office operated in a social context of slavery, restricted women rights, national priorities, and ongoing events, such as war or geographic expansion. As in all human endeavors, there were often "two steps forward" and "one step backwards". As an example, the 1793 Act included clauses discriminatory to foreigners. There were several documented incidents of various officials being either self-serving, autocratic, or arbitrary.

Thomas Jennings is the first known African American to receive a patent in 1821 for a process that was akin to "dry cleaning". In 1855, clerk Clara Barton was fired after her male co-workers complained about her being paid equal wages.


During the first several decades of patent applications, most were mechanical in nature and focused on agricultural innovation. Over time, submitted applications expanded to include design (1842), business methods, plant grafting (1930), biological (1980), chemical, and software innovations. Some notable patents:
  • 1794 - cotton gin,Eli Whitney
  • 1840 - telegraph, Samuel Morse
  • 1872 - lubricating device for steam engine, Elijah McCoy
  • 1873 - improving beer brewing, Louis Pasteur
  • 1877 - # 10,000 Otto Heinigke Design for Pumps
  • 1880 - electric lamp, Thomas Edison
  • 1904 - wireless telegraph, Guglielmo Marconi
  • 1906 - flying machine, Wilbur and Orville Wright
  • 1911 - # 1,000,000 Francis H. Holton Improvement in vehicle tires
  • 1940 - animation, Walt Disney
  • 1953 - ice rink resurfacing machine, Frank Zamboni
  • 1972 - Nike waffle athletic shoe design, William Bowerman
  • 1980 - initially rejected, Anand Chakrabarty of GE filed for a genetically engineered bacterium designed to break down crude oil. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of GE, thereby buoying biotechnology industry
  • 1991 - # 5,000,000 Lonnie Ingram, Tyrrell Conway, and Flavio Alterthum E. coli bacteria to produce ethanol
  • 2007 - Apple iPod, Steve Jobs
  • 2018 - # 10,000,000 Joseph Marron and Raytheon Company Improves laser detection and ranging (LADAR)

As can be seen from the Decadal Patent Issuance table, the approval of patents continues to accelerate. In an increasingly global economy, intellectual property becomes more valuable as innovations can be marketed in more settings. At W.K. Mclaughlin, we’ve been helping successful organizations recruit talented professionals for over five decades. Contact us when you need to add to your talent pool to continue to add to your firm’s progress.

-by Pat

Jan 12, 2023