"While we were gazing down upon this great workshop of America, the smoke from its thousand chimneys rose gradually higher and higher..."Ralph Keeler and Harry Fenn
Every Saturday, March 11, 1871
Harry Fenn, the noted illustrator, captures in his 1871 etchings what is commerically known as Pittsburgh--the cities of Allegheny, Birmingham and Pittsburgh proper. At the time of his visit Pittsburgh was probably the richest city of its size in the United States. What the two visitors observed aside from the smoke was the distinctive character of its citizens-- a strong work ethic. They probably did not grasp that behind this lay a passion for invention that was and still is pursued by industrialists, laymen and research scientists.
Many of this city’s industries like foodstuffs, glass, iron and later on aluminum and steel flourished here because a patent (which is a temporary legal monopoly over a specific device or process) was secured by one or another of this city’s inventors. Street names in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City are tombstone markers for some of the city’spatentees--Aiken, Dithridge, Oliver, and Wood. Others whose names played a prominent role in this city’s "Golden Age of Invention," include Arbuckle, Rees, Roebling, Scaife, and Westinghouse. According to U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) records over 1,000 patents were awarded during the years 1790-1879 to residents of the two cities. Most of theinventors were represented by William Bakewell , the city’s nationally known patent lawyer.
The Patent Database for 1789-1790 is organized according to the manner in which the USPTO published it--by alphabetical order of the name of the invention. The last name of a patentee can be called up from the database so that all the patents an inventor received can be viewed.
Missing from the database are names of persons known to have received a patent, along with patents that were lost in a Patent Office fire. It was also not uncommon for Inventors to assign their patents to firms that employed their design or process ie., William R. Jones assigned his patents to Andrew Carnegie.
Among the most noteworthy omissions from the Patent Office records for Pittsburgh are several women inventors. Lizzie McKeogh received a patent in 1866 for a foot pad for sewing machine treadles Elizabeth Holt, discoverer of an improvement for packings used in pistons and rods, secured a patent in 1877. Mildred Blakey (a male) is an unsolved mystery who held two patents, including one for Skeping Dies used in making tubes.
The variety of patents issued is significant, although few inventors earned much for their patents issued for corn shellers, door-locks, floating docks, brick machines, clover-seed hullers, plows, glass furniture, sausage stuffers and vermicelli cutting machines. Those who obtained patents for air brakes, cannons and guns, glass, railroad cars, steam engines, steel, valves, etc. fared better financially and also had the satisfaction of seeing their work contribute to the expansion of Pittsburgh’s industries.
The first U.S. patent issued on July 31, 1790, was to Samuel Hopkins for his new process of making potash, an ingredient in soap. Until July 1, 1836, when the U.S. Patent Office devised a classification system, patents were arranged alphabetically and kept in wooden boxes. Today visitors to the USPTO in Crystal City, Virginia, can still see the millions of U.S. patents shelved in metal and wooden boxes
Allegheny City’s ties to the U.S. Patent Office begin with the award to B. Crawford of Patent No. 3,732 on September 7, 1844, for a Steam Engine Condenser Boiler. Pittsburgh’s W. Deane received the first patent in this new city for a Radiator tube on November 4, 1805.
As can best be determined, the interest in commerce and invention started in Pittsburgh in 1797 when it was a frontier town of about 2,400 people and a few enterprising settlers saw the possibilities of the Ohio River serving as the main artery of commerce. A flatboat loaded with produce was the first shipment sent down the Ohio River to Louisville. Flatboats, keelboats and barges were soon being built at boatyards that dotted the riverfront of the city. Two individuals in Pittsburgh--David Rees and Emily E. Tassey -- made contributions to this industry with patents whose contributions to shipping and waterways remain largely unknown to the public.
Iron can be said to be the second important industry to develop in Pittsburgh ca 1793 when George Anshutz built Pittsburgh’s first iron furnace on Two Mile Run. Anshutz produced cast stoves and grates. The city’s iron industry took another leap forward when the Union Rolling Mill produced the first angle iron A decade later Etna Iron Works manufactured the first iron-pipe west of the Alleghenies. Men like David Reese and other members of his family received numerous patents that permitted this industry to expand setting the stage for Pittsburgh to become the country’s leading manufacturer of steel.
Glass was a necessity in early settlers’ homes which entrepreneurs Major Issac Craig and General O’Hara recognized in 1795 when they built Pittsburgh’s first glass factory on the north bank of the Ohio River. O'Hara's Glassworks, manufactured the first flint glass west of the Alleghenies. Bakewell and Page, however, claimed the honor in 1818 of furnishing President Monroe with a "complete set of flint glass, each piece engraved with the arms of the United States." Other important men in the history of Pittsburgh Glass include James Bryce, Thomas Atterbury, and Edward Dithridge , all of whom were associated at one time or another with the Bakewells.
The first to recognize the importance of manufacturing to this small frontier city was Zadoch Cramer, publisher of the Pittsburgh Almanac when he wrote, "Manufacturing has almost rendered us independent of the eastern states, as those states have been rendered by the war independent of the Old World." Pittsburghers made fortunes by manufacturing iron, brass and tin, glass, leather, lead, liquor, textiles, and tobacco--which made independence possible. Commerce made the city prosper and positioned its businesses for expansion.
Between the two wars--the War of 1812 and the Civil War--Pittsburgh became a modern city with a powerful manufacturing base that was estimated at $50 million in 1850 by Samuel Fahnestock in the Pittsburgh Directory for the Year 1850. That year marked another important event--the Pennsylvania Railroad began operating trains between Pittsburgh and Johnstown, linking the two leading centers of iron production in Western Pennsylvania, and paving the way ultimately for the steel industry to develop in this region.
This patent record thus constitutes a " story of the city became the nation’s most important manufacturing center" writ large in the patents awarded individual Pittsburghers of an earlier time. Perhaps this list of doers and dreamers will inspire other aspiring inventors or lead individuals interested in local history to new discoveries concerning the activities of their ancestors. Industrial historians will find new "leads" that will aid their research.
Librarians in Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Reference Services Department can provide copies of any early patent that is available in our collections for a small charge to patrons requesting such items by mail or telephone.