Twain, Technology, and the Patent Office
"... the very first official thing I did, in my administration--and it was on the very first day of it, too--was to start a patent office; for I knew that a country without a patent office and good patent laws was just a crab, and couldn't travel any way but sideways or backways" (Twain 46).
In 1790 the first US Patent Law established the Patent Office. The first patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins, who had developed a way to prepare pearlash, an important ingredient in soap at the time (Ellis). Problems and complaints led to revisions of the law in 1793 and 1800. In 1836, however, the system was overhauled to establish the system used today in the United States. It is so much better that other nations have imitated it (Pursell 99).
Under the new system, all patent applications are investigated to prove they are both original and useful. This led to the development of patent agencies, lawyers, and brokers. It also contributed to the development of engineering as a profession (Pursell 100).
Some inventors, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, didn't patent their inventions. They wanted them to benefit all people freely. Most, like Thomas Edison, however, worked on their designs with a commercial purpose. Patents protect the inventor and those who have invested money in his or her idea from having that idea used without their permission.
Patents also help establish a legal basis for settling disputes about who had an idea first. Part of the patent application is a careful description of the new device. If there is any question, the two descriptions are compared. The person who files the patent first is considered the inventor.
Connecticut Yankee was published in 1889. Just ten years later, Charles H. Duell, Comissioner of the U. S. Office of Patents, would resign, saying, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Today as we smile as his mistake, we should also remember that the pace of technological development 100 years ago rivals our own. Who knows what the next 100 years might bring?
Additional information: U. S. Patent and Trademark Office.