Late 1700s

Inventor: James Watt Scottish Inventor Improved Steam Engine


The Beem collection includes a personal letter from James Watt to an undisclosed recipient requesting a trustworthy traveling servant for his friend, John Ryland, a fellow member along with Watt in the Lunar Society. Watt did not identify the year when dating his letter.

It can be seen from this letter, and it is known from history, that James Watt was not only an important inventor, but also a member of society and, in particular, a friend of his fellow members in the Lunar Society, many of whom played important roles in the Industrial Revolution and in the advancement of the interests of England. See J. Uglow, The Lunar Men (2002).

Patent activity in England, and the evolution of British patent laws, has continued to the present day, and will be revisited below at the proper time in this narrative.

Patents in the United States

During the colonial period in America, there was some limited patent activity in the form of petitions to, and grants by, colonial legislatures. But for present purposes, we begin our treatment of U.S. patents with the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, which in pertinent part provides that “Congress shall have 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.”

The Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, and it formally adjourned on Sept. 17, 1787, after obtaining approval by the twelve attending state delegations and signature by 39 of the 42 attending delegates. The power of Congress to grant patents and copyrights was proposed during the Convention by James Madison of Virginia and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, who made similar proposals, with somewhat different wording, both of which were referred to committee, reported out, and agreed to without dissent or recorded debate. See K. Dobnyns, The Patent Office Pony (1): A History of the Early Patent Office (hereinafter Patent Office History), Chapter 4, A few days after Madison and Pinckney made their proposals, the Convention adjourned to allow members to see inventor John Fitch’s demonstration of his new steamboat, for which he petitioned Congress for a patent even before the Constitution was signed. (2) Id.

The Constitution became effective in 1788 for all ratifying states. On March 4, 1789, the first Congress under the Constitution convened in New York City and, on April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as first President of the United States, with John Adams as Vice-President.

Numerous petitions for patents and copyrights were filed with the first Session of Congress in 1789, but apparently none were granted, and a patent bill was proposed in the House, but it was not passed, and almost all record of it was lost when the British burned some of the Congressional records in 1814.

Patent Act of 1790

On January 8, 1790, President George Washington, in his State of the Union message to the second session of the first Congress, recommended giving encouragement to the to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad, and to the exertion of skill and genius in producing them at home. See Patent Office History, Chapter 5.

Within days, both the Senate and the House replied enthusiastically and, on January 25, 1790, a committee was appointed in the House to draft a patent statute. On April 10, 1790, the first United States Patent Act, entitled “An act to promote the Progress of the Useful Arts,” was signed into law by President Washington. A Patent Commission, which first comprised Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph, was created. See Patent Office History, Chapter 5.

The first U.S. patent, signed by George Washington as President, was granted on July 30, 1790 to Samuel Hopkins, then living in Philadelphia, for a method of producing potash, an essential ingredient used in making soap, glass and gunpowder. Only three patents were granted in 1790. See Patent Office History, Chapter 5.

From 1790 until 1836, when the Patent Office was created, patents were issued without patent numbers. They were identified only by the inventor’s name and the date of issue.

In 1793, the Patent Act of 1790 was repealed and replaced by a slightly longer act, the drafting of which is attributed largely to Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State and therefore intimately involved in the administration of the 1790 Act. The 1793 Act is notable for its definition of what constitutes patentable subject matter in the United States:
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.

The 1793 definition of patentable subject matter, focusing on “new and useful,” and encompassing improvements, is largely intact even to the present day. (3)

A brief review of the inventions covered by the patents in the Beem collection will show the practical nature of technical problems presented and the solutions offered. Thus, for example, the patents are directed to rigging on ships, methods for making rope, apparatus and methods for weaving cloth, home appliances such as butter churns, washing machines, stoves and stills, power-generating devices including a then-popular version of hydropower, namely a water wheel, manufacturing apparatus for handling of cast iron, evaporation of liquids, tanning of leather, methods for road construction, machines for making bricks, and agricultural equipment such as a machine for “thrashing” grain.

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was the first invention of great importance to be patented under the Act of 1793. See Patent Office History, Chapter 6. The examination of Whitney’s application took almost a year; meanwhile, imitation, copying and improvements by competitors proceeded rapidly. Whitney turned to the courts to enforce his patent, in which he was successful in case after case. As a result, he collected large sums of money in royalties over the life of his patent.

(1) In the early 1800s, a single pony was kept by the Government for the use of a messenger or clerk to collect signatures of the Secretary of State, Attorney General and President, as required for the issuance of patents. See Patent Office History, Prologue, The historic patents in the Beem Collection are of this vintage and might well have been couriered by pony messenger from Secretary to Attorney General to President.

(2) Fitch and other competing applicants, after expending considerable effort, ultimately obtained for themselves the grants of four steamboat-related patents, all of which issued on the same day in 1791, but it was after the expiration of those patents that Robert Fulton went on to make the steamboat commercially feasible in 1805. Fulton would encounter his own difficulties in dealing with the Patent Office and, in particular, with Dr. William Thornton, Superintendent, in disputes that would come to the attention of Secretary of State James Monroe (1814-15) and then Attorney General and Acting Secretary of State Richard Rush (1817).

(3) The basic structure of the present law was adopted in 1952. P.J. Federico and Giles S. Rich are generally credited with drafting of the Patent Act of 1952, and a commentary by Federico, once published in the relevant volume of U.S. Code Annotated (USCA), Title 35, but now harder to find, is a useful guide to the latter Act. Of course, there have been many other changes in the U.S. patent law between 1836 and now, and more changes are under consideration or are likely to be proposed in Congress.

Letter Transcript

Dear Sir

My friend Mr Ryland wants a travelling servant for the continent who understands the Languages & can be well recommended for sobriety honesty etc.

You will oblige me by assisting him in his enquiry after such a person.

I remain Yours truely,
May 21st
J. Watt

Contact Team Beem Today