{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/law.php' }

Birthday of First US Patent

This is the model of Abraham Lincoln’s patent, 1849. Image courtesy of Division of Political and Military History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Lincoln was the only US president who was ever granted a patent

On this day in 1790, the United States government issued a patent to Samuel Hopkins for an improvement in the means of making potash and pearl ash. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution of the United States of America provides the Congress the power to pass laws to protect intellectual property.

However, neither the Constitution, nor the first federal law concerning patents, provided for a separate agency to administer this system. Instead, the decision to grant a patent was left with three high-level federal officials–the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General. This law was repealed by the law of February 21, 1793, which assigned the responsibility for reviewing petitions and granting patents solely to the Secretary of State. Under both laws the Secretary of State was charged with maintaining all records associated with the granting of the patent, including descriptions and models submitted by the applicant. In 1802, Secretary Madison reorganized the patent section of the department and created a position to administer the granting of patents and the maintenance of records. This position was later designated the Superintendent of Patents. William Thornton, a physician, and one of Washington’s first polymaths who in addition to being a doctor designed the U.S. Capitol as the first Architect of the Capitol, was appointed to the position on June 1, 1802, and would serve until his death in 1828.

The granting of patents for inventions in what became the United States began in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1640s. After the conclusion of the War for Independence some states provided for the issuance of patents. The provision in the Constitution was explained by James Madison in Federalist 43.

Americans proved to be an inventive people and by 1810 the number of patent files had become too large for the allotted space. In that year, the government purchased Blodgett’s Hotel, a large building in the Penn Quarter area of Washington. The building, which was never a hotel, also was the general post office for Washington, and after the British burnt Washington in 1814, it served, for a year, as the temporary meeting quarters for the House of Representatives and of the Senate. By 1836, the descriptions and models for over 10,000 patent applications were stored in the building.

The story of how the collection was saved in 1814 involves Superintendent Thornton. It is said that on the night of August 24, 1814, when the British forces were setting fire to the public buildings in Washington Thornton challenged a unit preparing to fire a cannon at the building. In his passion he interposed himself between the cannon and the building and told the men manning the weapon that it contained the records of the patents granted by the government and destroying the records would be a crime against all the world. Another account has him merely reasoning with the commanding officer at the scene. However he managed to do it, Thornton’s intervention was successful and the building and its contents were spared.

Tragically, in December 1836, the building and records were destroyed by a fire that started in the basement. Records for almost 10,000 patents, and 7,000 patent models, were lost, however, through subsequent submissions by patent holders, records for 2,845 patents were restored. A large new fire-proof building was authorized to replace the old building. Although it would take several decades to complete, portions of the new building opened for use in the decades before the Civil War. In addition to the Patent Office, the building provided space for other government agencies, and was the site of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball in 1865.

In 1932 the Patent Office, and its contents, were relocated to the Herbert Clark Hoover Building, which also houses the Department of Commerce. In 1967, the Patent and Trademark Office moved again, this time to Northern Virginia. The current headquarters building opened in late 2003.


ISSN 2691-6592

On June 25, 2020, the Library posted ISSNs on the pages of all of its blogs, including In Custodia Legis, which now bears ISSN 2691-6592 right under the “About this Blog” link on the upper left side of the page, and also on the bottom of the “About” page. If you are a serials cataloger, […]

Find a Member of Congress by Address on Congress.gov

In June, Margaret shared that we had added district maps to member profile pages on Congress.gov. Each map on a member profile can be expanded to show a larger size version of the map. With today’s update to Congress.gov, we build upon the district maps by adding a new search box to help you find your member. […]

The Law Library of Congress Celebrates the 30th Anniversary of the ADA, Recognizing Library Staff Who Promote Accessibility

Special thanks to Willa Armstrong, Natalie Buda Smith, Karen Keninger, Katie Noethe, and Hope O’Keeffe for their assistance in putting together this post. Thirty years ago, on July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Among its provisions, the ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination in […]

The Abdication of a Queen

On July 24, 1567, an imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots was forced to sign the instrument of her own abdication, thereby handing over the throne of Scotland to her 13-month-old son, James, and his regents. She was only 24 years old and had been queen of Scotland since the first week of her life. She was forced […]

When the Former Vice President of the Confederacy Debated Civil Rights with an African American Congressman

On January 6, 1874, Robert B. Elliot, an African American representative, from South Carolina debated a landmark civil rights bill on the floor of Congress against the former vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. Robert B. Elliott served as a prominent delegate to the 1868 South Carolina State Constitutional Convention and was later elected to the […]