History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 6 -- The Patent Law of 1793

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The Patent Act of 1790 did not satisfy applicants, and it did not satisfy those who were appointed to administer it. Applicants did not like the strictness with which the Patent Board determined who should and who should not receive patents. There was no appeal from the discretion of the Patent Board. The members of the Patent Board had high positions in the Government and did not have sufficient time to spare to run the patent system. They were already reviewing patent applications at their lodgings after regular office hours.

Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter years later in 1813, [footnote 1] stating that the investigations of patent applications had required more time than the members of the Patent Board could spare from their higher duties, and that the applications had required a great deal of time to understand and treat with justice. In a 1792 letter to Dr. Hugh Williamson, the chairman of a congressional committee to revise the patent law, [footnote 2] he wrote that it distressed him to render crude and uninformed opinions on valuable and important rights without being able to devote the full attention that the opinions deserved. He wrote a bill to reform the patent law on December 1, 1791, and discussed it with Dr. Williamson. [footnote 3] Mr. Jefferson's bill would have eliminated all examination and made the Secretary of State the registrar of patents, with determinations of patent validity to be made by the courts. It does not appear that this bill in the form written by Mr. Jefferson was ever introduced in Congress. In early 1793, Rep. Alexander White moved to appoint a Director of Patents to run the patent system, but Rep. Samuel Livermore opposed the motion because it would require the young nation to appoint and pay another officer, instead of tacking patents onto the duties of an existing officer. [footnote 4] While Mr. Jefferson's bill was not introduced as written, some of its provisions were incorporated into a bill which was passed as the Act of February 21, 1793. It appears that the primary reason for the Act of 1793 was not the dissatisfaction of inventors but was the inability of the Patent Board to administer the Act of 1790 while carrying out their other duties.

The Act of 1793 went from the extreme of rigid examination to the opposite extreme of no examination at all. The Patent Board was abolished. The State Department was to register patents, and the courts were to determine whether the patents were valid. The State Department could not refuse to issue a patent if a proper description and drawing were submitted, a model was supplied, the proper allegations made in an affidavit, and the proper number of witnesses supplied.
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[Page 36 illustration: Portrait of Eli Whitney]

Although the Act of 1790 made no distinction between the rights of citizens and aliens to obtain patents for their inventions, the Act of 1793 restricted the right to citizens. The Act of 1793 raised the fee for obtaining a patent from approximately five dollars to thirty dollars, which was an immense sum of money for a farmer or blacksmith to pay at that early date.

The first invention of great importance patented under the Act of 1793 was the product of Eli Whitney (1765-1825) of Massachusetts. Eli Whitney was the son of a frugal, small farmer, who intended that his sons should be farmers after him. Young Whitney was a skillful mechanic from his early teens, and between 16 and 18 he made good profits producing nails at the forge to replace those unavailable from abroad because of the revolution. He determined to get a college education and worked as a mechanic and school-teacher for years, until he was able to enter Yale College at the age of 24. He excelled at math and physics, and studied classics and literature from necessity. [footnote 5]

Upon graduation, he engaged himself as a tutor to a gentleman from Georgia. On the boat to Savannah, he met a fellow passenger, Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene. On arrival, he found that his intended job was no longer available. Mrs. Greene invited him to live in her home at Mulberry Grove, near Savannah, while he studied law, which was then his intention. He accepted the invitation, and made himself useful around the plantation through the use of his mechanical skills.

In the spring of 1793, Mrs. Greene had visitors from Augusta, Georgia, who were old comrades of her late husband. These gentlemen, Majors Brewer, Forsythe and Pendleton, were discussing the problems they were having with agriculture on their plantations. While sea island cotton, which grows well only in the coastal area of the state, has seeds which are easily removed, the upland cotton which grows in other areas of the state has seeds which are very difficult to remove from the lint. The visitors were discussing how much upland cotton they could profitably produce if there were an easy way to remove the seeds. Mrs. Greene suggested that her visitors discuss the problem with her resident mechanical genius. He agreed to try to solve their problem.

The first problem was to obtain some upland cotton with the seeds in it. He had never seen any. He visited Savannah and succeeded in obtaining some cotton, and returned to Mulberry Grove to experiment on it. He confided his [Pg 37] intentions only to Mrs. Greene and to Phineas Miller, a New England gentleman who was then the tutor for Mrs. Greene's family, and who subsequently married Mrs. Greene and became Mr. Whitney's business partner. Whitney was given a workroom in the basement of the house in which he made a small model of his invention in about ten days. It took him much longer to make a larger, successful working model. The necessary materials were very difficult to find in Savannah. He had to draw out all the wire that he needed for his model, because, at that early day, no ready-made wire was sold in Savannah. Mr. Whitney's cotton engine, or cotton gin, as he conceived it comprised a wooden cylinder with iron wire teeth set about its periphery. During its operation, these teeth seized the raw cotton, and pulled it through the narrow openings in a row of adjacent iron straps. The openings were too narrow for the cotton seed to pass, and they were brushed into a receptacle below. A second cylinder, moving in the opposite direction, was provided with wire brushes to remove the now seedless cotton from the wire teeth.

Mr. Whitney returned to New Haven to confer with his friend Elizur Goodrich on the preparation and filing of a patent application. Mr. Goodrich was, at various stages of his life, a member of Congress, a collector of customs, a professor of law at Yale, and the mayor of New Haven. He was also the father-in-law of Henry Ellsworth, first Commissioner of Patents, [footnote 6] whom we meet later. Mr. Whitney applied for a patent on June 20, 1793, but did not receive it until March 14, 1794. While this may seem to be a relatively short time between application and patent when viewed by the present generation of applicants, it was an excessively long time under the old registration system.

Within a very short time, competitors were imitating and improving the cotton gin. The most successful improvement was patented in 1796 by Hodgen Holmes, of Augusta, Georgia. Mr. Holmes found the process of setting wire teeth into the wooden cylinder and maintaining them there to be unnecessarily complicated, and he replaced them with a stack of saw disks, the teeth of the saws replacing the wire teeth of Mr. Whitney. This quickly became the only type of cotton gin in use. Mr. Whitney fought a long series of court battles to protect his invention, and it seems that he collected at least $90,000 in royalties over the term of his patent, which was a very large sum of money at that early date. In 1804, a certified copy of Mr. Whitney's patent was provided to the U.S. District Court in Savannah.

When the Patent Office burned to the ground in 1836, an effort was made to restore as many patents as possible. It is unclear where the Patent Office got the information to restore the Whitney patent, but the information was wrong. The restored patent shows Whitney's gin using saws, as all gins did by the time of the patent restoration. However, the certified copy, which [Pg 38] was apparently not known to the restorers, shows that Whitney's gin used wire teeth. [footnote 7] The restorers can be pardoned for restoring Whitney's expired patent from insufficient information, since they did not know of the existence of sufficient information elsewhere. A good argument can be made that this one invention, by itself, has contributed more to the gross national product than the cost of running the patent system throughout its entire existence. Mr. Whitney went on in later life to help in the development of mass production, accepting and fulfilling a contract with the U.S. Government to produce ten thousand muskets.

It has been said that Whitney, by inventing the cotton gin, made slavery profitable in the South, and by developing mass production, made manufacturing efficient in the North, thereby doing more than any other person to insure Southern participation and Northern victory in the American Civil War. [footnote 8]

The Act of 1793 continued in effect, with only relatively minor changes, through 1836. The industrial revolution in this country was well begun under this act, with all of its shortcomings.

One of the notable inventors in the 1790s was Charles Willson Peale, the Philadelphia portrait painter, museum keeper, and father of a large family of painters named mostly for classical painters. On January 21, 1797, Charles Willson Peale received a patent for a bridge, the general structure of which is known from other sources. On November 16 of the same year, he received a patent for fireplaces. The next day, Eli Terry, founder of the American clock-making industry, received his first patent for a clock. On December 14, 1798, Raphael Peale, son of Charles Willson Peale, received a patent for preserving wooden wharves and vessels from worms. On June 28, 1800, Peter Lorrilard received a patent for a machine for cutting tobacco.

Sophonisba Peale, a painter and daughter of Charles Willson Peale, married Coleman Sellers, a Philadelphia manufacturer and son of that Nathan Sellers who was excused from the Revolutionary Army at the request of the Continental Congress to help make much-needed paper. During the presidency of George Washington, Nathan and Coleman Sellers had their shop in Philadelphia, across the street and down the block from the home of the President. A son of Coleman and Sophonisba Sellers, George Escol Sellers, will make his appearance later.

It may seem that there is a close connection between Philadelphia and invention. While this may be true, it is most probably because Philadelphia was the largest city in the nation at the time and the seat of the federal government. But in 1800, the federal government was about to move to an unsettled farming area, with a large proportion of swamp land, not far from the home of the late George Washington.

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