History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 3 -- Independent America Explores Invention

[Pg 14]

When the winds of revolution began blowing through the British colonies, the inventors and manufacturers took up the challenge of preparing the infant nation for the inevitable fight.

In 1762, the Connecticut legislature had apparently granted money to continue the mining of iron ore from the iron beds at Salisbury, which they had sponsored in some fashion for many years. The Council of Safety in Connecticut decided at the beginning of 1776 to take over the iron furnace at Salisbury for manufacturing iron, casting cannon and cannon balls, etc. They continued to finance this activity during the years of the American Revolution, exempting important workers there from military service. [footnote 1]

[Page 14 illustration: Bushnell's Turtle]

Understanding the necessity of thwarting the British fleet, David Bushnell of Connecticut devoted his efforts to the development of a submarine, which was styled Bushnell's Turtle. The submarine was to be used to attach explosive canisters, or torpedoes, to the hulls of enemy ships. Hand-driven screws and a single rudder would allow the lone operator to approach a ship while underwater and to attach the canister to the hull by driving a heavy screw into the hull, to which the canister torpedo was attached. A timer-operated fuze would set off the explosive many minutes or hours later, allowing the submarine time to depart safely. Mr. Bushnell appeared before the Council of Safety in Connecticut in February 1776 to ask its support and potential reward in case of success. The Council ordered that the Treasurer pay £60 to Mr. Bushnell to improve his invention. Subsequently, Mr. Bushnell made several attempts to blow up British ships in New York harbor. However he failed because the ships were sheathed in copper, and he could not drive the canister screw into the hull through the copper. [footnote 2] How quickly might the Revolution have been won if it had worked!

One cannot run a war or a government without paper, and the supply from England was soon cut off. The Continental Congress quickly passed a resolution that the paper-makers of Pennsylvania would not be allowed to join the military battalions, their services being needed to make paper for the revolution. But while there were a number of paper-makers available, there was apparently only one person in Pennsylvania who knew how to make the [Pg 15] wire-screen molds needed by the paper-makers for turning their pulp into paper. That person was Nathan Sellers of Philadelphia. He was ordered by the Continental Congress to be removed from Colonel Paschall's Battalion in New Jersey and to be returned to Philadelphia to make molds for the paper makers. [footnote 3] The Sellers family is another family that we will hear from later.

[Page 15 illustration: Portrait of Nathan Sellers]

In these early days, it was the practice to card wool by hand in order to align the fibers for subsequent spinning. Two hand-held brushes or cards were used, each tediously handmade by inserting wire teeth or wire bristles into a leather backing. Every household with a spinning wheel needed its own pair of wool cards. Oliver Evans, of Newcastle, Delaware, began during the American Revolution to develop a self-feeding machine to punch holes in the leather and insert and fix the teeth in the card, making a one-thousand-tooth card each minute. In 1786, he petitioned the Maryland legislature for a 25-year monopoly for making card machines, and for making machines to automate the operation of flour mills, a little invention he was to spend much of his life trying to profit from. [footnote 4]

And in an early preliminary shot in the Rumsey-Fitch steamboat fights, James Rumsey, of Berkeley County, Virginia, filed a petition with the Maryland legislature in November 1783 requesting a monopoly for an unstated term of years in his various inventions. [footnote 5] One of these invention was "for propelling boats on water, by the power of steam, which has already been accomplished in experiments on a boat of about six tons." This became confused with his request in January 1785 to the same legislature for a ten-year monopoly for "navigating boats against the current of rapid rivers," which appears to have referred to a system for using water power to drive poles to pole a boat up a rapid river. In September 1784, George Washington provided Mr. Rumsey with a letter, [footnote 6] much cited later, in which he stated that he was an eyewitness to an actual experiment in which Mr. Rumsey's boats worked against the stream, by mechanism and small manual assistance, against rapid currents. Whether or not any steam power was used in the experiment witnessed by Washington, he made no mention of steam in his letter.

According to Mr. Rumsey's chronology, [footnote 7] much disputed by the Fitch interests, Rumsey proposed a steamboat in the summer of 1783, and in December 1785 prepared a steam engine and boat to test. He was prevented by the icing up of the Potomac River in January 1786 from testing it then. [Pg 16] Over the winter, he improved his equipment. He had parts made for the boat in February 1786. The boat was tested in March 1786 and performed, but quite imperfectly. Mr. Rumsey was fortunate to attract the attention and support of many of the important men of the time, the most prominent of whom was Benjamin Franklin, who set up the Rumsean Society to support him. Following Mr. Fitch's chronology, [footnote 8] equally disputed by the Rumsean interests, Fitch conceived his invention in 1785 and exhibited a model of his steamboat to the American Philosophical Society in September 1785. Fitch published a description and illustration of his steamboat in the Columbian Magazine in December 1786.

[Page 16 illustration: Portrait of James Rumsey]

Different students of the Rumsey-Fitch controversy can and have reached opposite conclusions as to who should be given priority. Neither was the first to propose a steamboat. Among the numerous prior proposers was Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War pamphlet author, who proposed construction of steamers to the Continental Congress in 1778. [footnote 9] Nor was either the first to build and operate a steamboat. A steamboat was constructed and operated under the direction of the Marquis Jouffroy in the river Soane in France in 1781. [footnote 10] What is important is that Rumsey and Fitch fought for monopolies on their inventions to be granted by at least six state legislatures in the days before the beginning of the national patent system. The legislatures had no rules to govern their granting of monopolies. A monopoly could be granted to encourage the development within the state of technology which was well known abroad, even though the person granted the monopoly was admittedly not the first inventor. Or a monopoly could be granted to an inventor who alleged that he was the first, without adequate means to check the accuracy of the allegation. And after long and involved efforts to lobby a state legislature to grant a monopoly, the monopoly granted was not valid outside the state. It could be written out of the law if another petitioner could convince the legislature that he had a better case or more influential friends.

In a country of only four million people, there was not a market large enough to support extensive manufacturing unless the market could be as wide as the nation. To support this, inventors needed a monopoly as wide as the nation. It was necessary, but perhaps not a clearly seen necessity, to provide patents as wide as the nation to support markets as large as the nation.

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