Today, on the official holiday celebrating Washington’s Birthday (or Presidents Day), we remember George Washington as the Father of His Country. We also should remember him as the Father of the Patent System.
It was Washington, the man of action, who urged Congress to act on the Constitutional mandate “to promote the progress” of the “useful Arts” by “securing for limited Times to … Inventors” the “exclusive Right” to their inventions. U.S. Constitution, Art. I, §8, cl. 8. There didn’t seem to be much debate over the intellectual property clause, by the way.
From the outset, everyone agreed that a robust patent system would be essential to the vitality of the new nation. The fledgling republic was breaking away from the world’s leading country for manufacturing and technology. It was essential to spur inventiveness and to harness the new “useful Arts” (the word “technology” did not come into existence until decades later) in industry and commerce.
Thus, on January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered the very first Annual Message to a Joint Session of Congress (now known as the State of the Union address), in the Senate chamber of Federal Hall in New York City. He implored 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 one of its very first acts of legislation, namely, the Patent Act of 1790. Soon thereafter, George Washington signed the very first U.S. patent, issued to Samuel Hopkins for a method of making potash, a useful ingredient in fertilizer and other compositions.
Each of the next six Presidents—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson—also acted in their official capacities in signing every U.S. patent to be granted. This practice extended into the year 1836. Every one of these early U.S. patents was signed by the President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General.
Another early President, Martin Van Buren (No. 8), also had the experience of signing patents, though in his earlier role as Secretary of State.
Every day, I am inspired by the sight of original U.S. patents bearing the signatures of early Presidents and other top officers of the nation. Thirteen such original, historic patents are displayed on the walls of my offices.
All of the early patents from the first 46 years of the patent system — about 10,000 in total — were issued without patent numbers. It was only after Andrew Jackson reinvigorated the patent system, breaking ground for the new Patent Office that would take 20 years to build and would become the largest and most visited office building in the nation, that U.S. Patent No. 1, directed to traction wheels for a railroad locomotive, would issue to John Ruggles on July 13, 1836. From that date forward, U.S. patents would be signed by the Commissioner (now the Director) of the Patent Office.
The pace of invention accelerated after the early years of the Republic.
Abraham Lincoln (No. 16) is known as the only President ever to have received a patent, No. 6469, for his own invention. The year was 1849, marking the onset of a 20 year period of the most rapid growth in patents and applications. See Alan Marco, et. al, USPTO Historical Patent Data Files: Two Centuries of Invention, Working Paper 2015-1 (USPTO Office of Chief Economist, June 2015) (Figs. 4-5 and discussion at p. 16-17).
Another President to sign a patent was Gerald Ford (No. 38), in connection with the Bicentennial of the United States. It is not easy to find that patent number, but it can just barely be read on the copy of the official proclamation and grant, which document is displayed at USPTO.gov in connection with another historic event. U.S. Patent 3,938,115, directed to a combination smoke and heat detector alarm, issued to inventor Sidney Jacoby on Tuesday, February 10, 1976.
Continuing the long pattern of American ingenuity, U.S. Patent 10,000,000, directed to a system and method of intra-pixel laser detection, said to be useful in 3D imaging, recently issued to Joseph Marron and his employer Raytheon. It was the last patent to be signed by a President, namely, the Nation’s current President, No. 45.
In sum, the names of 11 U.S. Presidents appear on U.S. patents. The first seven Presidents. starting with George Washington, acted in their official Presidential authority in signing patents granted to others as inventors. The eight President, Martin Van Buren, signed patents in his earlier role as Secretary of State. A ninth President, Abraham Lincoln, had his name printed on U.S. Patent 6469 issued to him as an inventor in 1849. Two other Presidents, Gerald Ford and Donald Trump, signed patents on the occasions of the Bicentennial of the Nation and the issuance of U.S. Patent 10,000,000, respectively.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. As we celebrate his 287th birthday, we remember him as the Father of His Country — and Father of the Patent System.