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Patents through history

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will issue the 10 millionth utility patent in summer 2018. This milestone of human ingenuity perhaps exceeds even the Founding Fathers’ expectations when they called for a patent system in the Constitution to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Follow the timeline below for important moments, notable inventors, changing patent designs, and other interesting facts over more than two centuries of innovation in America.

1790
Animation: Drawing of George Washington, Henry Knox, Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph.
Following passage of the 1790 Patent Act, the first Patent Board, composed of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph, begins meeting at regular intervals to examine patents.
1790
1790 design example
President George Washington signs the first U.S. patent, granted to Samuel Hopkins for improvements in "the making of pot ash and pearl ash."
1793
The Patent Act of 1793 shifts patent examination to a simple but less-protective registration system.
1794
Eli Whitney receives U.S. patent no. X72 for a "Cotton Gin."
1800
1800 design example
The patent cover becomes a typeset form filled in by a calligrapher but still signed by the president. Cover designs of this period are utilitarian but still reflect the craftsmanship of hand-set type.
1802
Portrait of Dr. William Thornton
First superintendent of patents Dr. William Thornton, a polymath who also designed the U.S. Capitol, becomes the first superintendent of patents, later termed "commissioner of patents," and serves for 26 years.
1810
The U.S. Patent Office is established in Blodget’s Hotel in Washington, D.C.
1814
Animation: Soldiers march on Washington, DC, flames run up to officers discussing the sparing of the Patent office in the background
William Thornton persuades the British to spare the Patent Office during the burning of Washington, arguing that the knowledge contained within was useful to all mankind.
1821
Thomas Jennings receives U.S. patent no. 3,306x for "Dry Scouring," a precursor to dry cleaning. He is the first known African-American to receive a U.S. patent.
1827
Patent with engravings
Patents feature engravings on the cover by William Stone, best known for creating a highly accurate facsimile of the signed Declaration of Independence for the nation’s 50th anniversary.
1836

July 4 - The Patent Act of 1836 completely rewrites U.S. patent law.


July 5 - Charles M. Keller, who helped Senator John Ruggles write the 1836 Patent Act, is the first person to hold the official title of "patent examiner."


Miniature models of the inventions are now required when applying for a patent.

1836
Train wheel patent diagram
Patent numbers reset On July 11, patent numbers reset and U.S. patent no. 1 is granted to Senator John Ruggles, who also wrote the Patent Act of 1836.
1836
Animation: Patent office in background, flames rise in front and office fades out
On December 15, the Patent Office catches fire, destroying many patent documents and models. An ongoing effort to recover the "X patents" lost in the fire continues to the present day.
1838
1838 design example
The elaborate engraving in this example from the Van Buren administration references the scientific and engineering innovation represented by the patent system.
1839
An agricultural division, the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is established in the basement of the Patent Office.
1840
Animation: Telegraph taps out Morse code that spells out PATENT
Samuel Morse receives U.S. patent 1,647 for the telegraph, which allows messages to be sent across long distances. The related alphabetical code, co-invented with Alfred Vail, becomes known as Morse code.
1842
The first design patent, "Des. 1" - now called U.S. patent D1 - is granted to industrialist George Bruce for "new printing types."
1849
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln with a superimposed patent diagram for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals
Manner of Buoying Vessels Abraham Lincoln receives U.S. patent no. 6,469 for a "Manner of Buoying Vessels." He remains the only U.S. president to hold a patent.
1855
Portrait of Clara Barton
Clara Barton Clara Barton works as a clerk at the Patent Office. She is paid equal wages for her work, but after male coworkers complain, she is told to work from home and ultimately loses her job. She is later rehired.
1863
Etching of Patent Office used as hospital
That noblest of Washington buildings As a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman works in the makeshift hospital within the Patent Office and describes it as "that noblest of Washington buildings."
1867
1867 design example
Blank patent covers are typeset in a script face and feature engraved illustrations, often of the Patent Office in Washington, D.C.
1872
Elijah J. McCoy, whose parents were slaves and escaped Kentucky for Canada, receives U.S. patent no. 129,843 for an automatic lubricating device that enabled steam locomotives to run without stopping for lubrication. Legend holds that his invention worked so well that machine operators wary of cheap substitutes often requested "the real McCoy," a phrase still in use today.
1872
Granted patents are now published in the Patent Office’s Official Gazette every Tuesday following their issuance.
1873
Animation: Patent design drawing of three brewing vats pouring ale into glasses
Louis Pasteur receives U.S. patent no. 135,245 for an "Improvement in Brewing Beer and Ale" that lays the basis for modern beer brewing methods.
1877
Patent drawing of ear mufflers
Improvement in Ear-Mufflers Fifteen-year-old Chester Greenwood receives U.S. patent no. 188,292 for "Improvement in Ear-Mufflers." His invention adds a swivel hinge to keep the earmuff tightly against the ear. "Chester Greenwood Day" is still celebrated in his Maine hometown.
1877
Aftermath of burnt Patent Office building
Second Patent Office fire The Patent Office burns again, destroying many patent models. From this point onward, models are no longer mandatory when applying for a patent but still frequently requested by the commissioner.
1877
The 10,000th U.S. design patent is issued to Otto Heinigke for "Design for Pumps."
1879
Outline drawing of the top half of the Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty Parisian sculptor Auguste Bartholdi receives U.S. design patent no. 11,023 for a monumental sculpture depicting "Liberty enlightening the world."
1880
Animation: Edison light bulb patent drawing with yellow glow and filaments
Thomas Edison receives U.S. patent no. 223,898 for an "Electric Lamp." It is the first commercially viable lightbulb. Edison is the inventor or co-inventor on over 1,000 U.S. patents.
1887
The United States joins the Paris Convention, an international treaty that strengthens and harmonizes the protection of patent holders across the world.
1888
Nikola Tesla receives U.S. patent no. 381,968 for an "Electro-Magnetic Motor," the basis for modern electric induction motors.
1891
Patent drawing of toilet paper roll
Toilet paper roll Seth Wheeler receives U.S. patent no. 459,516 for a toilet paper roll.
1893
Edward Hyed receives U.S. patent no. 500,000 for a "Combined Flush-Tank and Manhole."
1903
20th century design
This design persists from the beginning of the 20th century through the mid-1980s with only minor changes.
1904
Guglielmo Marconi, considered the inventor of the radio, receives U.S. patent no. 757,559 for a "Wireless-Telegraph System."
1906
Animation: Wright brother's plane, piloted by Orville Wright, flying across to the right, past Wilbur Wright.
Wilbur and Orville Wright receive U.S. patent no. 821,393 for a "Flying-Machine," forever altering the course of human history. They will vigorously defend their patent rights in the years ahead.
1911
Francis H. Holton receives U.S. patent no. 1,000,000 for an improvement in vehicle tires.
1915
Patent drawing of bottle
Bottle or similar article Alexander Samuelson receives U.S. design patent no. 48,160 for a "Bottle or Similar Article." The iconic bottle helps Coca-Cola® stand out among competitors.
1920
The first Manual of Patent Examination Procedure is published by the Patent and Trademark Office Society.
1930
Congress passes the Plant Patent Act, creating a distinct type of patent to protect new varieties of asexually reproduced non-tuber propagated plants.
1931
Animation: Patent drawing of rose, green leave fade in, five roses fade in on different branches
U.S. plant patent no. 1 issued to Henry Rosenberg for a "climbing or trailing rose." The rose is named "New Dawn" and remains popular today.
1932
Freestone peach Famed horticulturist Luther Burbank, whose work and advocacy for intellectual property rights was the inspiration for passing the Plant Patent Act, is posthumously issued U.S. plant patent no. 15 for the freestone peach.
1932
Patent drawing of sliced bread
Machine for slicing an entire loaf of bread Otto F. Rohwedder receives U.S. patent no. 1,867,377 for a "Machine for slicing an entire loaf of bread at a single operation," and U.S. patent no. 1,816,399 for packaging sliced bread.
1935
Joseph Ledwinka receives U.S. patent no. 2,000,000 for "Vehicle Wheel Construction," a pneumatic tire for rail cars.
1940
Patent image of multi-plane camera
Art of animation Walt Disney receives U.S. patent no. 2,201,689 for "art of animation," ushering in modern animated motion pictures.
1942
Headshot of Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr During Hollywood’s Golden Age, Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr moonlights as an inventor. With composer George Antheil, she patents a technique of hopping radio signals from frequency to frequency to help radio-controlled torpedoes evade detection and jamming. The work is ahead of its time and contributes to the development of advanced wireless communications.
1946
Animation: Patent drawing of a slinky moving up and down between two hands
Richard James receives U.S. patent no. 2,415,012 for a "toy and process of use."
1952
The Patent Act of 1952 clarifies and reorganizes patent law while incorporating several substantive additions.
1953
Patent drawing of ice rink resurfacing machine
Anyone up for a game of hockey? Frank Zamboni receives U.S. patent no. 2,642,679 for his eponymous "ice rink resurfacing machine."
1955
Physicist Enrico Fermi receives U.S. patent no. 2,708,656 for the "neutronic reactor," a seminal development in nuclear power generation.
1961
Kenneth Eldredge receives U.S. patent no. 3,000,000 for an automatic reading system that converts human language into machine-readable language.
1961
Animation: Patent drawing of submarine, Alvin, water moves up screen, submarine and bubbles move off screen to the left
Harold Froehlich receives U.S. patent no. 3,104,641 for an "underseas vehicle." The submarine "Alvin" allows scientists to dive to 14,000 feet, enabling the discovery of over 300 new animal species. 
1961
Patent image of the top half of a crash test dummy
Crash test dummy Samuel Alderson receives U.S. patent no. 3,010,223 for a "human Equivalent dummy." The crash test dummy helps greatly improve vehicle safety.
1965
Animation: Patent drawing of Saturn-V rocket moves up screen as flames and smoke push down from the bottom of the rocket
Timothy Eddins receives U.S. patent no. 3,224,336 for a "missile launch release system." Used on the Saturn V rocket, this system is part of a series of patented inventions created at NASA to send astronauts to the moon.
1970
The United States signs the Patent Cooperation Treaty, which provides a unified procedure for filing patent applications in each of its contracting countries.
1970
Patent drawing of a computer, keyboard and mouse with diagram labels and the text 'NOW IS THE TIME FOB' shown on the screen
Computer mouse Douglas Engelbart receives U.S. patent no. 3,541,541 for " X-Y position indicator for a display system," also known as the computer mouse.
1972
Patent drawing of a Nike shoe with the waffle tread design
Waffle tread William Bowerman receives U.S. patent no. 3,793,750 for "Athletic shoe for artificial turf." The shoe’s "waffle" indentations provide improved grip and become a common feature in sneaker design.
1975
Gold coin bearing the seal of the Patent and Trademark Office
What's in a name? The Patent Office is renamed the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
1976
Robert Mendenhall receives U.S. patent no. 4,000,000 for a "process for recycling asphalt-aggregate compositions."
1976
Bicentennial design
Signed by President Gerald Ford, this one-of-a-kind, hand-inscribed patent is granted to Pennsylvania inventor Sidney Jacoby as part of celebrations of the nation’s bicentennial. This is the last patent known to be signed by a U.S. president.
1978
Patent drawing of the athletic brassiere
Athletic brassiere Hinda Schreiber, Eugenie Lindahl, and Polly Smith receive U.S. patent no. 4,174,717 for an "athletic brassiere," the first patented sports bra.
1980
Congress passes the Bayh-Dole Act, giving universities, small businesses, and nonprofits more control over their innovations resulting from federally funded research.
1984
Animation: Fire bucket patent drawing moves up to the left and shrinks as water is released from the base to douse the flames below
Don Arney receives U.S. patent no. 4,474,245 for a "collapsible fire bucket," which allows fire-fighting helicopters to fight forest fires.
1985
20th century design
The most-recognized U.S. patent cover design comes into use, adorning more than five million issued patents.
1991
Lonnie O. Ingram, Tyrrell Conway, and Flavio Alterthum receive U.S. patent 5,000,000 for creating a means to use E. coli bacteria to produce ethanol.
1999
Jeffrey C. Hawkins and Michael Albanese receive U.S. patent no. 6,000,000 for a method of synchronizing files between computers.
1999
Mary-Dell Chilton et al. receives U.S. patent no. 6,051,757 for "Regeneration of plants containing genetically engineered T-DNA." Her research leads to the first transgenic plants and the foundation of modern plant biotechnology.
2001
Raymond Kurzweil receives U.S. patent no. 6,199,042 for a reading system that recognizes images of text and uses a computer to read the text aloud.
2003
Animation: Sketch of the Patent Office headquarters complex fades to photo of the same complex
The USPTO begins moving to its current headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.
2006
John P. O’Brien receives U.S. patent no. 7,000,000 for inventing strong, biodegradable, low-cost textile fibers from polysaccharides.
2007
Patent drawing of the face of an iPod device
iPod Steve Jobs receives U.S. patent no. 7,166,791 for "Graphical user interface and methods of use thereof in a multimedia player," which allows users to navigate the Apple iPod.
2011
Robert J. Greenberg, Kelly H. McClure, and Arup Roy receive U.S. patent no. 8,000,000 for a "visual prosthesis" for people who have gone blind due to retinal degeneration.
2011
The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act is signed into law, bringing several changes to U.S. patent law and transitioning it from a "first-to-invent" to a "first-inventor-to-file" system.
2015
Matthew Carroll receives U.S. patent no. 9,000,000 for a "windshield washer conditioner," which collects rainwater from a car’s windshield and recycles it for cleaning the windshield.
2018
Animation: Legacy patent designs appear in order with the to be unveiled 2018 design as a question mark
1790
1800
1827
1838
1867
1903
1976
1985
2018