In late July my husband drove our daughter to sleepaway camp in Pittsford, Vermont. As he was driving through the town, he noticed a historic plaque in the 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 charming New England town.
What were 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—a journalist himself—quickly pulled over and snapped a photo of the plaque, which he then emailed me.
My first reaction upon receiving it was amusement. But after a while I was also intrigued. The date of issue for that first patent was July 31, 1790—223 years almost to the day before my husband drove past that sign.
I decided to do a little research to commemorate the birth of the U.S. patent. After all, the United States has issued more than 8.5 million patents since that first one. The least I could do was learn more about this historic accomplishment. But I got more than I bargained for.
That first patent, issued to someone named Samuel Hopkins, 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 that “on this ingredient of soap manufacture was founded Vermont’s first main economy.”
But if we’ve learned anything in the last 223 years, it’s this: Where there are patents, there are bound to be controversies. And where there are disagreements, correcting the record may take a while. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when my fun little research project encountered a long-running dispute 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 of Pittsford. Early patent records were destroyed in 1836 in a fire at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., so not much was known about the first patentee other than his name. But the legend of Pittsford’s patentee started taking root soon after.
The Patent Office restored most of the rec­ords lost in the fire to the best of its ability, and in the 1840s the commissioner of patents created a list of all the patents issued since 1790, mistakenly giving Samuel Hopkins a Vermont residence. Almost 100 years later—in the 1930s—a genealogist doing research in New England wrote that the first patent holder was from Pittsford, and that myth was reinforced and perpetuated in the 1950s by an employee of the Vermont Historical Society.
The story persisted uncontested for decades, but in 1998 it was challenged. David Maxey, a sometime historian who was a partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath, discovered that they had the wrong guy. The real holder of the first patent, he determined, was 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 that Samuel Hopkins in Philadelphia was listed in the local census as an “inventor” who had apprenticed to a potash maker when he was young. 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 Hopkins’s life. 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 says. “The inventor bug did him in.”
The lawyer/historian published two articles in respected journals on Hopkins, but the mythology of Pittsford’s patentee persisted and became even more distorted. Wikipedia’s entry for Hopkins says that he was from Philadelphia but purchased a farm in Pittsford. “With Wikipedia, the story acquired a new and even more bizarre fiction,” says 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,” counters 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, their senator, Patrick Leahy, 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 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,” says 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, Paynter felt compelled to correct the record and added the new information about the Philadelphia inventor to the online version of his article.
John Dumville, who oversees Vermont’s state-owned historic sites, says that he’s 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. He even offered to have a new sign cast for the town that highlights some other Pittsford historic event. Dumville 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 says.
Dumville has also tried to have all references to Pittsford 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,” he says. “This is the local legend that never dies.”
Maxey is retired from his law practice and now 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’s 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.”
A version of this story first appeared in sibling publication Corporate Counsel.