As I write these words, I am inspired and surrounded by original autographs of seven of America’s eight early presidents. Their signatures appear on 200-year old original patents displayed on the walls of my offices. See Beem Presidential Patent Collection.

“If a country can be said to possess a soul, then America’s is the patent system: the simple, fair method of staking a claim to a new idea and getting the chance to make money from it.” J. Keller, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel at 61 (Viking 2008).

America’s soul is the patent system

As these United States came into being in the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, fueled by the British patent system and James Watt’s patented steam engines. In 1776, during the reign of King George III, England ruled the seas with ships built and furnished with patented technologies.

The colonies were splitting away from the mother country, the most advanced manufacturer of goods in the world. No longer would colonists ship cotton to England and have it returned in the form of cloth. Now it would take six weeks to make one set of sheets. What would motivate American inventors to create new technologies for manufacturing, agriculture and commerce?

Promote the progress of technology

On September 5, 1787, the Constitutional Convention unanimously agreed to empower Congress to protect intellectual property:

“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.”

U.S. Constitution, Art. I, §8, cl. 8.

George Washington urges Patent Act

On January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address, urging Congress to pass a Patent Act to get the Country moving with “new and useful inventions” and “the exertions of skill and genius in producing them.”

Congress answered by writing and passing its third act of legislation, namely, the Patent Act of 1790. A few months later the first U.S. patent (subsequently numbered “X1”) issued to Samuel Hopkins, for a method of making potash. Few patents issued that year, but filings grew rapidly, and Thomas Jefferson soon was overwhelmed with patent applications.

In 1793, a new Patent Act was passed, and Commissioner William Thornton (also remembered as architect of the Capitol) was given authority to receive and handle applications under what was essentially a “registration” (no substantive examination) system. Each and every new patent was signed by the President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General.

Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin

In 1794, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, making history but profiting little until his invention in 1798 of muskets with interchangeable parts.

Presidents sign patents

In 1800 in Philadelphia, President John Adams signed a typical patent on a lathe or loom for weaving. In 1809, Thomas Jefferson signed another patent for making cloth with a machine for dressing flax and hemp.

President James Madison endured the burning of the Capitol at the hands of the British, even as the Patent Office was spared, and soon another patent was issued, for a horizontal water wheel.

Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams continued the practice of signing U.S. patents, for example, for a cast iron truss shears (signed by Monroe and Adams in 1822).

Jackson’s patent improvements

By the time of the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, there was an outpouring of inventions, for example, a patent was issued in 1831 for coal stove construction, which was important enough to be reissued  in 1837.

President Jackson was instrumental in the enactment of the Patent Act of 1836 and the building of a new Patent Office. It would take 20 years and become the largest and most visited office building in the country. Under the new act, patents were signed by the Commissioner of Patents and for the first time they were numbered, starting with U.S. Patent 1, titled “Locomotive Steam-Engine,” issued to inventor John Ruggles on July 13, 1836.

Thirteen years later, Abraham Lincoln, preoccupied with navigating the shallow Sangamon River, applied for and obtained issuance of U.S. Patent 6,469, for a method of “Buoying Vessels over Shoals.”

Lincoln says patents add fuel

Ten years after receiving his patent, Lincoln delivered a speech on inventions, finding progress rooted in the arts of writing and printing, the discovery of America, and the introduction of patent laws. Lincoln recognized that the patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

During his Presidency, Abraham Lincoln was a great fan of the Patent Office and new technologies, which he understood would be necessary to bring the Civil War to an end.

By 1883, most other countries had adopted patent systems modeled on the U.S. system, and at the Paris Convention, they granted “priority” for filings that had first been made in other countries.

The American century

Through most of the 20th century, the U.S. patent system continued to rise in prominence. On October 1, 1982, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit began to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over patent appeals from across the nation. Respect for patents increased dramatically, see G. Beighley, “Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Has it Fulfilled Congressional Expectations,” even while accompanied by a growing backlash against patents.

China answers with big push

As the U.S. patent system has ascended, so has the rest of the world emulated the U.S. system and increased their patent filings. China, Japan, Korea, and Europe have joined the U.S. in the IP5, rivaling and sometimes surpassing the level of activity of the U.S. patent system. China in particular has made a big push.

What is President Obama’s patent legacy?

The America Invents Act and other recent developments have made it harder to enforce patents. There has been an “erosion of patent rights,” see G. Quinn, “Is the Market Poised for Rebound in 2015,” IP Watchdog (Dec. 11, 2014).

All of this leads us to wonder, what will be the patent legacy of President Barack Obama and our current 114th Congress? Proponents of further “patent reform” legislation seek to push patents down by imposing big penalties on those who assert patents unsuccessfully. The burdens and risks will fall disproportionately on small and medium business enterprises (SMEs), in contrast to developments in other industrialized countries, where large companies like LG are bending over backwards to help SMEs.

Corporations undermine patents

Corporate interests are asking Congress and the White House to make it harder for independent inventor and small businesses to get and enforce patents. They seek to undermine the American “simple, fair method of staking a claim to a new idea” and “the chance to make money from it.” J. Keller, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel (2008).

Let your voice be heard!

For more than 200 years, the patent system has added the “fuel of interest” to American ingenuity. If you value American innovation and competitiveness, let your voice be heard in the White House and Congress. Ask leaders to shore up the strong patent system established by our nation’s founders.