History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 4 -- To Promote the Progress of the Useful Arts

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In 1787, the loose confederation of thirteen independent states had proven itself an inadequate government for a thinly populated nation whose population mostly hugged the eastern coastal areas of the infant nation. Such roads as existed were long narrow gullies of mud when wet and long narrow ruts of dust when dry. The preferred method of travel was still by water where possible.

[Page 17 illustration: Portrait of John Fitch]

John Fitch, farmer, surveyor, clockmaker, silversmith, gunsmith, frontiersman, mapmaker, was hit with the idea of a steamboat in 1785. With the monomania which sometimes affects inventors, he devoted most of the rest of his life to promoting his invention. By 1787, he had built and was ready to demonstrate his steamboat in Philadelphia, to enable easier travel by water.

On May 14, 1787, delegates from the thirteen states met in Philadelphia in the Constitutional Convention, intending to draft a constitution to replace the nearly inoperative Articles of Confederation. George Washington presided at the convention, after spending four days in traveling the 150 miles between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia. On May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph of Virginia opened the business of the convention by submitting a series of resolutions known as the "Virginia Plan." Then Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina presented the convention with a proposed plan for the federal government which he had prepared. There was no mention in either of these plans of any power to grant patents. The plans were referred to a committee, and the committee subsequently reported in favor of Mr. Randolph's plan. However, the Randolph plan was amended in the committee of the whole house. No reference to a patent power was made yet. Discussion of the "Virginia Plan" was postponed until William Patterson of New Jersey could submit a plan. Both of these plans were referred to the committee of the whole, which reported again in favor of Mr. Randolph's plan as the basis of the Constitution. After the report was debated for over a month, all of the proceedings of the convention up to that time were referred to a committee of detail appointed for the purpose. Thirteen days later, the committee made a report, but still there was no provision for granting patents. Practically the entire Constitution had been thoroughly [Pg 18] considered before any member of the convention suggested the power of granting patents.

[Page 18 illustration: Portrait of James Madison]

On August 18, 1787, James Madison of Virginia arose in his place, and submitted, for reference to the committee of detail, additional powers to be added to those previously proposed for the legislature. Among these powers were "to secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time," and to "encourage by premiums and provisions, the advancement of useful knowledge and discoveries." On the same day Charles Pinckney of South Carolina also submitted a number of propositions, among which were: "to grant patents for useful inventions," and "to secure to authors exclusive rights for a certain time." It is noteworthy that South Carolina was the only state which had passed general legislation allowing the grant of patents without special act of the state legislature. The propositions of both these gentlemen were soon referred to the committee of detail. [footnote 1]

Mr. Fitch invited Dr. William Samuel Johnson, a member of the Constitutional Convention from Connecticut, to ride aboard his steamboat in the Delaware River at Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon, August 22, 1787. Dr. Johnson invited others, including Rufus King of Massachusetts, to accompany him. On the day of the demonstration ride, the convention adjourned to allow the members to see the show. The boat operated under its own steam power, and several of the members rode on it. Fitch noted in his autobiography that few of the members of the convention failed to call and see his steamboat. [footnote 2] The only one he was sure did not show up was General Washington. We know that Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, later Chief Justice of the United States, was one of the riders. [footnote 3]

On August 31, such proposed parts of the Constitution as had not been acted upon were referred to a committee composed of one member from each state. Among these undisposed parts were the propositions to give Congress the power to grant patents for inventions. Mr. Madison was on this committee, but Mr. Pinckney was not.

On September 5, 1787, the committee reported and recommended, among other things, that Congress should have the power "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." [Pg 19] There was no recorded debate on the patent clause. Perhaps, after the demonstration of John Fitch's steamboat, no debate was necessary. The patent clause was agreed to without a dissenting vote. In the final revision of the style and arrangement of the articles in the Constitution, this clause became paragraph 8, section 8, of Article I, where it is now.

[Page 19 illustration: Portrait of Charles C. Pinckney]

Thus it is seen that the proposals to give this patent power to Congress were made by James Madison and Charles Pinckney. Neither of them seems to have had any special interest in science or the useful arts. Mr. Madison, in one of the Federalist Papers, argued in favor of the patent and copyright clause as follows: "The utility of this power will scarcely be questioned. The copyright of authors has been solemnly adjudged in Great Britain to be a right at common law. The right to useful inventions seems with equal reason to belong to the inventors. The public good fully coincides in both cases with the claims of individuals. The States cannot separately make effectual provision for either of the cases, and most of them have anticipated the decision of this point by laws passed at the instance of Congress."

Time has justified Mr. Madison's Federalist Papers argument.

John Fitch had succeeded in interesting about twenty investors in his plan, and he had persuaded them to take shares in his steamboat company at $50 each. Following his August 1787 demonstration, the company started another larger steamboat with steam-engine-driven oars. John Fitch, who had little real skill as a mechanic, found the skills he needed in Henry Voigt, a Dutch watchmaker of Philadelphia. On the first trial of this boat on the Delaware in the summer of 1788, the boiler began to leak and the engine stopped when John Fitch and Henry Voigt were in sight of their destination. The next day Fitch and Voigt brought the disabled boat back to Philadelphia on the tide. Naturally, the other boatmen on the river ridiculed their boat. But Fitch and Voigt continued their efforts, and in October they took a number of passengers on a pleasure trip to Burlington, New Jersey, at a speed of about four miles an hour. [footnote 4]

[Page 20 illustration: John Fitch's Steamboat]

At this time in America, there were few skilled mechanics. A young English medical doctor, William Thornton, was one of the steamboat company. He stated years later that there was not a single engineer in the company, and that before the work started he was the only one who had even seen a steam [Pg 20] engine. That was as a boy in England. [footnote 5] They were forced to make engineers from common blacksmiths. A small group of members of the company undertook to increase the speed of the boat from three or four miles an hour to eight miles an hour, at their own expense, in exchange for half the shares of the remaining members if they were successful. They worked at this for about 12 months.

On April 16, 1790, a test was arranged. A mile was measured off on Front street, sometimes called Water street, and the boat was found to go at the rate of eight miles an hour. It afterwards went 80 miles a day. The Governor and Council of Pennsylvania were so much gratified with the experiment that they presented them with a superb silk flag. Fitch said that he and Voigt thought themselves Lord High Admirals of the Delaware that day. About this time, the company sent Mr. Fitch to France, at the request of Aaron Vail, then American consul at L'Orient, who was one of the company and who wished to introduce the invention into France. Because France was in the midst of revolution when Fitch arrived, no men could be found to build boats. Therefore, Mr. Fitch departed France. Fitch later made further alterations to his boat, and it performed tolerably well, but it required still further alterations. Mr. Fitch, however, was not able to obtain the necessary financing to perfect his invention, and the project faltered.

John Fitch's belief in the power of steam remained firm. In June 1792, he wrote to David Rittenhouse, a member of the company. He said that steam power will be the mode of crossing the Atlantic in time, whether he perfected it or not. He suggested that Mr. Rittenhouse buy his lands in Kentucky to enable him to complete the great undertaking. [footnote 6]

When John Fitch called upon a blacksmith who had worked on his boat to discuss their work, he concluded by saying that although he might not live long enough, some of the onlookers would see the time when steamboats will be the preferred mode of passenger conveyance, and would be particularly useful in travel on the Mississippi. When he left, an onlooker suggested that it was a pity that Fitch was crazy.

John Fitch petitioned Congress for a patent for years, even before the Constitution was signed. He was to await a patent statute before this desire could be satisfied.

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