Chasing the Myth of the First U.S. Patent
Note: This story has been updated with information from an official from the state of Vermont.
While driving my daughter to sleep away camp in Pittsford, Vermont, last weekend, my husband noticed a historic plaque in the town’s village green. Normally this wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but circumstances in this case were a bit unusual: The plaque proclaimed that the first U.S. patent was issued to a resident of this New England town.
What are the chances that the daughter of a reporter who covers intellectual property would end up at a summer camp near the home of the first U.S. patent owner? My husband instantly emailed a photo of the plaque to me.
I was amused and intrigued—enough, in fact, to do further research. And I discovered yet another coincidence: The date of issue for that first patent was July 31, 1790—223 years ago this week.
I figured I should commemorate the birth of the U.S. patent. After all, the U.S. has now issued 8,499,361 patents—that’s the official number as of July 30.
But I got more than I bargained for.
That first patent, issued to a Samuel Hopkins back in 1790, was good for 14 years. It was for an improvement “in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process,” and it was signed by President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
Now potash, the residue from repeated boiling of wood ashes, was a big deal back then—used in the manufacture of soap, glass, and gunpowder. Historians note that potash may be thought of as America’s first industrial chemical, and the Pittsford plaque even says “on this ingredient of soap manufacture was founded Vermont’s first main economy.”
But where there are patents there are bound to be controversies. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when my fun little research project encountered a controversy concerning the inventor of patent X000001.
Samuel Hopkins was indeed the first recipient of a U.S. patent—but it most likely wasn’t the Samuel Hopkins from Pittsford. Early patent records were destroyed in a fire at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., in 1836, so not much was known about the first patentee other than the fact that his name was Samuel Hopkins.
In the 1930s, a genealogist doing research in Vermont wrote that the first patent holder was in fact Pittsford’s Samuel Hopkins. The story of the patentee from Pittsford persisted uncontested for decades. But in 1998, David Maxey, a sometime historian who was a partner at the Philadelphia law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, discovered that they had the wrong guy. The real holder of the first patent, he determined, was a Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia.
Maxey did exhaustive research, finding a host of discrepancies in the record that convinced him that the Vermont Hopkins was the wrong man. He discovered a Samuel Hopkins in Philadelphia—a man listed in the local census as an “inventor” who had apprenticed when he was young to a potash maker. The original patent, which is in the possession of the Chicago Historical Society, indicates that the patent was issued to “Samuel Hopkins of the City of Philadelphia”:
Maxey learned a great deal about the life of the Philadelphia Hopkins, including that he was born into a Quaker family and lived a comfortable middle class life until he began his entrepreneurial pursuits. “He pretty much lost his shirt trying to exploit the process in his invention,” Maxey told CorpCounsel.com. “The inventor bug did him in.”
Maxey published two articles in respected journals on the subject (here and here), but the mythology of Pittsford’s patentee persisted—and even became more distorted. Wikipedia’s entry for Samuel Hopkins, for example, says he was from Philadelphia but purchased a farm in Pittsford. “With Wikipedia, the story acquired a new and even more bizarre fiction,” said Maxey, who is amused that the invented history refuses to die.
To this day, Maxey’s research has gone largely ignored—even by the contemporary Patent and Trademark Office, which came up with its own version of events in a 2001 press release marking the anniversary of the first patent. It said Hopkins was born in Vermont but was living in Philadelphia when the patent was granted. (The Philadelphia Hopkins was born in Maryland, and the Pittsford Hopkins was born in Amenia, New York.) “The PTO hasn’t been a tower of strength on this issue,” said Maxey. “It’s been pitching the wrong Samuel Hopkins for years.”
The people of Pittsford, meanwhile, have for more than five decades proudly claimed the first patent holder as one of their own. They erected their plaque in 1956. And as recently as 2011, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont noted on the day the Senate was to vote on the first major patent reform in 60 years—legislation known as the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act—that the first U.S. patent ever issued went to a Vermonter.
Some residents hold on to the idea that Pittsford’s Samuel Hopkins sought patent protection in Philadelphia because Vermont was not yet a state and he was unsure of the protection he would have as a patent holder who did not live in a recognized state.
“There are a lot of people in Pittsford who won’t give up on Samuel Hopkins,” said Peg Armitage, who edits the newsletter for the Pittsford Historical Society and serves “by default” as the town historian. “I personally think Maxey was onto something but I think a lot of people would be furious if the state took the plaque down.”
Henry Paynter, a former professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who retired to Pittsford and was charmed by the town’s connection to the inventor, wrote about Samuel Hopkins in a 1990 article for the magazine Invention and Technology. But after meeting with Maxey and reviewing his research in 1998, he felt compelled to correct the record and added the new information about the Philadelphia inventor to the online version of the article.
John Dumville, who oversees state-owned historic sites for the state of Vermont
, couldn’t be reached for this story told CorpCounsel.com that he has been asking the town or the state highway crew to remove the plaque since at least the year 2000—following his review of Maxey’s research. Dumville even offered to have a new sign cast for the town that highlights some other Pittsford historic event. But so far nothing has happened.
He thinks the town should put the plaque in the Pittsford Historical Society’s museum with an explanation—something that would serve as a lesson in how we unravel history. But he doesn’t anticipate this happening soon. “The post holding the plaque is starting to rot, so at this point we’ll probably just wait until it falls—or until the town comes to its senses,” he said.
Dumville said he has also tried to have all references to Pittford being the home of the first U.S. patent holder removed from state documents and websites. “But we haven’t even been able to get the Secretary of State or Department of Tourism to delete it from the things they do,” he said. “This is the local legend that never dies.”
But Julia Purdy, who writes about Vermont history and lore and gave a talk at the Pittsford Historical Society last fall, said there has been talk by state officials of removing the plaque. “I don’t think they should,” she said. “There is no real proof that Hopkins wasn’t also a Vermonter.”
Maxey is retired from his law practice and devotes much of his time to historical research. He laughs at the perpetuated myth and sees it as proof of the enduring effect of uncorrected error. He has been to Pittsford, he says, and understands the strong feelings of residents. “I even had my wife snap a picture of me standing in front of the bogus sign,” he said.
He has visited with the people at the Pittsford Historical Society and they understand that their guy may not be whom they thought, he said. Indeed, when I called them for this story, they were very quick to acknowledge this may be an issue of mistaken identity.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, now has a plaque of its own honoring Hopkins.
But my patent-travel story isn’t over: It turns out Hopkins traveled to Quebec in 1791 to make a submission to the royal authorities in Canada, and legal experts now consider Hopkins the first recipient of a Canadian patent. Coincidentally, my family is planning a vacation in Quebec later this year. Maybe we’ll find a plaque somewhere?