The sign is coming down. A historical marker that has stood in the village green of Pittsford, Vt., since 1956 proclaiming the New England town home to the recipient of the first patent issued in the United States will be removed by state officials sometime this year.
For decades, Vermont residents believed that Samuel Hopkins, who in 1790 was granted the nation’s first patent, lived in Pittsford. Even when evidence was presented to show this was untrue, citizens of Pittsford clung to the myth. It appears, however, that the state has now informed them it’s time to let go.
“This has been going on too long,” said John Dumville, who is in charge of state-owned historic sites for the state of Vermont. “The state has made the decision to have the marker removed.”
It is now a generally accepted fact that the first patent was actually issued to another Samuel Hopkins. He lived in Philadelphia.
The case of mistaken identity was perpetuated over the years by government officials, U.S. senators, Wikipedia and even by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In 1998, David Maxey, a Philadel­phia lawyer and sometime historian, documented the error, establishing that the Hopkins who received the first patent was not a resident of Pittsford but rather of Philadelphia.
Maxey also showed that the first patent holder never resided in Pittsford, N.Y. — a town that claimed him as a resident later in his life. A Samuel Hopkins is buried in that Pittsford’s cemetery, and the town erected a historical marker there. After Maxey published his findings, however, New York’s Pittsford took down its marker, acknowledging the historical error.
The marker and the myth in Vermont, however, remained.
For many years, Dumville urged Pittsford to let the plaque be removed. The town resisted. But now, 15 years after the evidence about the real first patentee came to light, the town is resigned to losing its fictitious claim to fame. Even the Pittsford Historical Society didn’t argue. “I think it should come down,” said 84-year-old Peg Armitage, the unofficial town historian whose family settled Pittsford in 1774 and who edits the society’s newsletter.
The state has asked that the marker be moved to the historical society, where it can be displayed inside the building as testament to how history can be misinterpreted, Dumville said. (Another historical marker, commemorating some other aspect of Pittsford’s history, may go up in the village green in its stead.) Armitage would like the historical society to create an educational exhibit around the decommissioned plaque.
Maxey, whose work convinced the state and eventually the town that they were honoring the wrong Hopkins, said he had mixed feelings upon hearing that the marker would be removed. He was pleased that the historical record would be corrected. “But I feel somewhat sad that the historical marker will be removed,” he said. “Its presence all these years was a tribute to local pride and to stubborn Vermont resistance.”
Maxey was happy that the local historical society would be able to keep the marker. “That’s appropriate,” he said. “The decommissioned marker now qualifies as an historical item in its own right.”
The saga of the first patent isn’t quite over, however. It turns out the Patent Office, which has long held to its own fictitious version of events, still hasn’t corrected the record, and a spokesman for the office said he could not comment.
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has also perpetuated the myth, noting as recently as 2011 — on the day the Senate voted on major patent reform legislation that bears his name — that the first U.S. patent issued went to a Vermonter. A spokesman said the senator has not yet had a chance to review the state’s decision to end its claim to the first patentee. But he noted that the state has another strong connection to patents: “According to the PTO, Vermont issues more patents per capita than any other state,” he said.
Lisa Shuchman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.