Researched and written by Jeanette Patrick, George Washington's Mount Vernon.
The Working Gristmill
See, hear, feel the power of our working gristmill here at Mount Vernon. This video shows many of the…
The United States government began issuing patents during George Washington’s presidency. On June 19, 2018, the 10 millionth utility patent was issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Safeguarding the rights of authors and inventions was important to the founding fathers. So important that part of Article 1 of the Constitution provided Congress with the power to create a method of granting patents.1 Washington also saw the importance of creating a patent system. On January 8, 1790, during his first State of the Union, he called on Congress to establish a system. Washington said, “The advancement of Agriculture, commerce and Manufactures, by all proper means, will not, I trust, need recommendation.”2
After months of back and forth between the House of Representatives and Senate, legislation was finally agreed upon. On April 10, 1790, Washington signed the Patent Act of 1790 into law.
A Patent Board was created, headed by the Secretary of State. The other members were the Secretary of War and the Attorney General. This group reviewed each proposal and had the sole authority to grant patents. Their decision could not be appealed. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was the first patent examiner. Henry Knox, Secretary of War, and Edmund Randolph, Attorney General, made up the rest of the first Patent Board.3Learn More About Washington's Cabinet
First, each inventor had to submit to the Secretary of State “a specification in writing, containing a description” of their creation. The Patent Board needed to fully understand each invention they evaluated. The act also required a model be submitted, along with the description, if the invention could be represented with one.4
Finally, a list of fees was included in the Act. “For receiving and filing the petition, fifty cents; for filing specifications, per copy-sheet containing one hundred words, ten cents; for making out patent, two dollars; for affixing great seal, one dollar; for indorsing the day of delivering the same to the patentee; including all intermediate services, twenty cents.”5 In total it cost about $4 to $5 per patent.6
The Patent Act of 1790 required each patent “to bear teste by the President of the United States.”7 Congress expected Washington to sign every patent for it to become official. Throughout his presidency, there were more than 150 patents granted.8 While very few patents survive from Washington’s time, it seems he signed each.
Unlike today, patents were not given a unique number. Instead, they were filed based on the date granted. Under the Patent Act of 1836 new patents were numbered, starting with one. All of the patents granted before 1836 were assigned an “x” and a number based on the order they had been granted.
Samuel Hopkins received the first patent for a new process to make potash and pearl ash.
Hopkins “discovered an Improvement, not known or used before, such Discovery, in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process; that is to say, in the making of Pearl ash 1st by burning the raw Ashes in a Furnace, 2d by dissolving and boiling them when so burnt in Water, 3rd by drawing off and settling the Ley, and 4th by boiling the Ley into Salts which then are the true Pearl ash; and also in the making of Pot ash by fluxing the Pearl ash so made as aforesaid; which Operation of burning the raw Ashes in a Furnace, preparatory to their Dissolution and boiling in Water, is new, leaves little Residuum; and produces a much greater Quantity of Salt”.9
The second patent was issued to Joseph Stacey Sampson on August 6, 1790. Little else is known about it because a fire destroyed the record.
The third patent was granted to Oliver Evans on December 18, 1790 for a new method of manufacturing flour and meal. The system worked so well that in 1791 Washington purchased a license and upgraded his gristmill to the Evans system. There was another Evans mill near Washington’s estate, so sent his millwright, William Ball, to inspect it. Then two of Evans’s brothers came to Mount Vernon to oversee the installation of the new mill.
Evans’s system moved grain and flour through all the steps in the milling process by mechanical means and required much less labor than a traditional mill. The system also improved the quality and quantity of flour that could be produced, making Washington’s mill more profitable than ever before.
Today visitors to Mount Vernon can explore a fully functioning reconstruction of the Evans mill.Learn More
On March 11, 1791, Samuel Mullikin was granted patents seven through ten. He created three machines: “for threshing grain and corn”, “cutting and polshing marble”, and “raising a nap on cloths”. He also received a patent for “breaking and swingling hemp”.10 Little else is known about these patents since they were lost in a fire.
In July 1836, Congress signed a bill which updated the now outdated patent system. The president was no longer required to sign each patent, patents received a unique identifying number, and funds were approved for the construction of a new fireproof build. Having granted almost 10,000 patents the Patent Office had outgrown its space and Congress wanted to ensure the safety of the documents and models.11 While construction was underway on the new building disaster struck.
On the night of December 14, 1836, a fire broke out in the building all of the patent records and models were housed in. By the time the fire was finally put out, every patent and model was lost.12 In January 1837, patentees were asked to return their patents for copying to create a new official record. However, less than 3,000 of the originals were ever returned.13