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Samuel Hopkins: Holder of the First U.S. Patent

In a nation that cherishes its "firsts," we have been strangely neglectful of the holder of the first patent issued in the United States.  His name and the discovery that resulted in  the patent grant are all but unknown.  Worse still, even for those few who consider themselves in the know, they have invariably accorded pride of place to the wrong person.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Chicago Historical Society (which acquired the original patent document), the Vermont Historical Society, and numerous writers on the history of our patent system have credited Samuel Hopkins, a resident of Pittsford, Vermont, and later of Pittsford, New York, with obtaining the first patent.  Historical markers have been erected in the two Pittsfords, commorating this Samuel Hopkins and his discovery of a new method of producing potash and pear- lash.  Potash was the designation of a crude form of potassium carbonate derived as residue from the repeated boiling of wood ashes in a cauldron (or in 18th century parlance, a pot—hence, the name “potash”).  Potash or the more refined pearlash may rightly be thought America's first industrial chemical because this substance was an essential ingredient in the making of soap, glass and gun-powder.

In two articles published in the spring of this year, David W. Maxey, a Philadelphia lawyer and historian, has restored to view the real Samuel Hopkins who acquired the  first patent on July 30, 1790. This Samuel Hopkins, no relation at all to the Pittsford claimant, was a birthright member of the Society of Friends.  Having been born in 1743 in the province of  Maryland, he was apprenticed at about age fifteen to a tradesman in the City of Philadelphia where he would subsequently spend most of his life.  In due course he would enter into a safe occupation of his own and become a dutiful husband and father who was always scrupulous in carrying out his religious responsibilities. Yet, in a midlife transformation and at considerable risk to himself and his family, he suddenly changed course and embarked on the career of inventor and entrepreneur. The heavy investment he would thereafter make in promoting his patented method has  been traced by Mr. Maxey in a variety of contemporary sources, including correspon- dence with the major land speculators of his day, the minutes of the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, the records of the Legislative Council of Lower Canada, and Phila- delphia newspaper advertisements.  Early in this new venture, Hopkins was forced to conclude that, in order to reap the benefits he desired from his patent, he would have to obtain equivalent protection in Canada where the basic raw material was, if anything, more plentiful than in the United States.  To do so led him to travel to Quebec in the spring of 1791 and to make a personal submission to the royal authorities in Canada.   For those interested in the evolution of patent law, as well as for connoisseurs of legislative history, the previously overlooked records in the Canadian National Archive provide valuable insight.

It was likewise clear to the first patentee that his success would ultimately depend on field demonstrations of the utility of his process.  Thus in the half dozen years that followed the granting of his patent, he can be found traipsing through the wilderness of northeastern Pennsylvania and building at remote locations his specially designed furnace.  In the end, he would fall victim of his own unrealistic dreams and the collapse of the speculative empires of his principal clients— men like John Nicholson, James Wilson, and Samuel Meredith.

Hopkins’s personal tragedy was compounded by the response of his fellow Quakers who condemned  excessive risk-taking as both disturbing to “tranquillity of mind” and threatening the “cause of truth.”  On account of his failings, he and his wife were ostracized for an extended period by the Quaker meeting to which they belonged.  Samuel Hopkins would eventually die in obscurity, a condition in which he has lingered until the publication of these two recent articles.

In “Samuel Hopkins, Holder of the First U.S. Patent,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 122 (1998), 3-27, the author develops in detail Hopkins’s personal history, while putting his entrepreneurial venture in the context of his social position, his religious convictions, and the nascent state of American patent law. In "Inventing History: The Holder of the First U.S. Patent," Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society 80 (1998), 155-70, the focus shifts to the comedy of errors that permitted the Pittsford Samuel Hopkins to supplant the Philadelphia Quaker of the same name, who, once the record is consulted, emerges as the indisputable holder of the first patent.

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