History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 2 -- Invention Comes to British Colonial America

[Pg 11]

Joseph Jenks Sr., age 41, iron founder, of Colebrook, Buckinghamshire, widower with two sons, was persuaded in 1643 to emigrate from England to Lynn, Massachusetts, to operate an iron-smelting and foundry business. In that year, Robert Bridges had taken bog iron ore found in Saugus, Massachusetts, to London and persuaded a group of wealthy English gentlemen and merchants to join him in forming the Company of Undertakers for the Iron Works. The company advanced £1,000 to commence the work. The Company of Undertakers chose Mr. Jenks to go out from England and operate the iron works. Mr. Jenks left his two sons, Joseph Jr. and George Jenks, in England with instructions to join him in America later. He successfully set up the foundry, and personally cast the first article, an iron pot holding about one quart. This pot survives in the Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts. The iron works apparently operated for about twenty-five years before it became unprofitable. [footnote 1]

In 1641, the Massachusetts Bay Colony granted an exclusive right for the manufacture of salt. It appears that this was for the establishment of an imported industry in Massachusetts, and not for an invention.

But in 1646, Massachusetts granted its first exclusive right for use of an invention. The inventor was Joseph Jenks Sr. The General Court recognized that he had made speedier engines for water-mills and also mills for making scythes and other edged tools, and it allowed him fourteen years without disturbance from others who might set up similar inventions. Mr. Jenks purchased the right to manufacture scythes at the iron works, and in 1655 he was granted a second exclusive right for seven years to manufacture an improved grass scythe. Apparently, the common scythe of the day was short, thick, heavy and slow. Mr. Jenks made a scythe blade which was thinner and longer and was thickened on the back side for support. For over 300 years the scythe of commerce remained substantially unchanged in shape from that of Mr. Jenks.

[Page 11 illustration: Pine tree shilling]

In 1652, Massachusetts was short of coinage for use in its internal commerce. It decided to coin its own money, despite the fact that the English policy, at least unofficially, prohibited the colonies from coining their own money. Joseph Jenks Sr. was chosen to make the dies for striking [Pg 12] the coins. He made dies for threepenny pieces, sixpenny pieces and shillings. They were to be of sterling silver, and by weight were to have five-sixths of the silver weight of the corresponding English coins. This lesser weight would tend to prevent their export from the colony for their silver value. Each was stamped with "Massachusetts" and a pine tree on one side, and on the other side "New England, Anno 1652," together with the number of pence in Roman numerals. There is a story that Sir Thomas Temple, representing the interests of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, showed samples of the coins to King Charles II. When the King asked what kind of tree was represented on the coins, Sir Thomas answered that it was a royal oak tree, the tree which saved the King's life. The King answered that the colonists were "a set of honest dogs," and proceeded with the business at hand.

In 1654, Joseph Jenks Sr. built a fire-engine for the city of Boston to deliver water in case of fire. There were few such engines in the world, and Paris did not get its first for another 50 years.

Joseph Jenks Sr., died in his early eighties, leaving a large family of descendants. His son Joseph Jenks Jr. came over from England in 1645, two years after his father, to operate iron forges and saw mills. He could not find sufficient water power to operate his mills available in Warwick, Rhode Island, so he moved in 1671 to the vicinity of Pawtucket Falls in Rhode Island to build a mill, and incidentally to found the town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Joseph Jenks III was a distinguished citizen of Rhode Island. His two principal claims to fame must have been that he was the royal governor of Rhode Island from 1727 to 1732, and that he stood seven feet two inches in his stocking feet. We shall hear more of this family later.

[Page 12 illustration: Masters' Engine]

Thomas Masters, a Pennsylvania Quaker, and his wife Sybilla applied for a patent in 1715, not for the colony of Pennsylvania, but back in the home country. He obtained British patent number 401 of 1715, actually secured in 1716, for a donkey-driven and a water-powered engine for shelling and pulverizing maize into meal. There are two remarkable facts about this patent. The first is that it may have been the first British patent granted to a resident of the American colonies. The second is that the invention was made and the patent was prosecuted in England not by Thomas Masters, but by Sybilla. This may have been the first patent ever granted anywhere for an invention which was made by a woman. [Pg 13] They recorded this patent in Pennsylvania in 1717, [footnote 2] and sold the corn meal, called "Tuscarora Rice," as a cure for consumption. [footnote 3]

[Page 13 illustration: Buell's First Type Font]

In Connecticut in the mid-1700s, there lived a superb craftsman named Abel Buell, equally skilled as a jeweler, type founder, and counterfeiter. He had been convicted of altering the bills of public credit of the colony and was sentenced to life imprisonment. When subsequently paroled to dwell with his family in Killingworth, he applied his skills to the legitimate crafts in his repertoire. He applied to the Connecticut legislature in 1766 for a special premium, which they had promised for useful discoveries, noting that he had discovered a method of grinding and polishing crystals which were found in the colony. He requested, as his special premium, that he be restored to the liberties which he had justly forfeited to enable him to carry on the business involved in working with such crystals. He was restored to his liberties, conditional upon giving bond. Then, in 1769, he petitioned the legislature again, noting that he had developed the art of type founding, which was known to few people, even in Europe. He wanted to set up a type foundry, and asked, as his special premium, a lottery to provide him with funds to set up the type foundry. Specimens of his type are still in existence. The legislature advanced him £200 to set up his foundry, on condition that he not depart the colony for seven years. By 1777, he had fled Connecticut because of debt, indicating that the type-founding business was not a total success. He appeared again in the records of Connecticut as a resident of New Haven in 1785 and continued there as jeweler, instrument maker, draftsman, silversmith and machinist until his death in 1822. [footnote 4]

There seems to have been a recognition of the importance of invention in much of British colonial America which was generally absent in French and Spanish colonial America. Most of the early legislation to reward inventors was in New England, particularly in the colony of Connecticut. There were numerous other monopolies granted in colonial times, in such areas as working iron and steel, raising and using silk, and making paper, which are mentioned in the records, without sufficient information to make them broadly interesting.

The vigorous American interest in invention seems to have blossomed with the serious desire for and attainment of independence, beginning about 1775.

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