U.S. Patent X000001 was granted on July 31, 1790 to Samuel Hopkins. The original document went missing for many years, only resurfacing in 1956.
The inventor named is Samuel Hopkins, but which Samuel Hopkins was much in dispute until fairly recently. For many years a small town in Vermont celebrated their local resident as the inventor of U.S. Patent X000001, marking the location with a historical marker on the Pittsville, Vermont village green. The marker stood, from 1956 until just a couple of years ago, even in the face of documentation first published in 1998 by a lawyer historian in Philadelphia, David Maxey. Maxey’s generally accepted research shows the patent was issued to an inventor Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia.
The entirety of the patent is reproduced below. It is signed by President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
Demonstrating a serial entrepreneur’s bent, Hopkins took out two later patents in addition to his first patent. And less than a year after the potash patent was granted in the United States, the Quebec Parliament passed an ordinance to “reward” him for his discovery. Legal experts now consider this Canada’s first patent.
The invention is for a potash refining process, today an obscure and seemingly low tech process in light of today’s technologies, but closer review highlights this as a worthy predecessor for all of the technology to follow. As is well described in Henry M. Paynter’s INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY article (paraphrased hereafter), Patent X000001 was not only the first of its kind but also vitally linked the nation’s early economy. In fact, potash was America’s first industrial chemical. Potash was essential for making soap and glass, dyeing fabrics, baking, and making saltpeter for gunpowder.
During the fourteen-year term of Hopkins’s patent, potash sold at from two hundred to three hundred dollars a ton, and over this period more than ninety thousand tons, worth at least twenty million dollars, were exported from the United States. If were anywhere near Hopkins’s estimates, this arrangement was a bargain for the asheries as well.
The forest-based potash industry of the colonial days, with abundant hardwood forests, is now long gone, but it was essential in the early years of the nation, and Samuel Hopkins’ patent permitted it to thrive. Potassium salts continue to be invaluable industrial and agricultural chemicals, and a stream of important patents concerning them has followed Samuel Hopkins’s down to this day. Moreover, his disclosure, marketing plan, and license agreements, set worthy precedents for subsequent inventors.
1. Paynter article from INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY, Fall 1990;
2. Maxey’s articles from The PENNSYLVANIA MAGAZINE of HISTORY & BIOGRAPHY, Jan/Apr 1998