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Our Rich History: Early Kentucky patents and inventors; search free at NKU’s Steely Library

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

Northern Kentucky has a rich history of inventors and patents, even as early as the antebellum period. The US Constitution encouraged national innovation by establishing that “Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries…” US Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8.

The Patent Act of 1790, signed by President Washington, granted a patent owner the “exclusive right” to create and market one’s invention in the entire United States for no more than a 14-year term. After that, it fell into the public domain. Thomas Jefferson served as the first administrator of the U.S. Patent System and was regarded as the nation’s first patent examiner. In 1802, the Patent Office developed into a separate federal agency.

First US patent, signed by President Washington, 1790. Source: US Patent and Trademark Office.

Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was granted the first official US patent, signed by President Washington on July 31, 1790. His invention was officially termed the “Making of Pot Ash and Pearl Ash by a New Apparatus and Process.”

According to three official indexes: Digest of Patents (1790-1839); Register of Name and Date Patents (1790-1836); and Subject-Matter Index of Patents for Inventions issued by the United States Patent Office from 1790 to 1873, Inclusive, the first Kentuckian to receive a patent was Edward West of Lexington. His US patent X290 was granted for a Metal Amulet on May 19, 1800. A watchmaker, silversmith, and steamboat inventor, West garnered four other early patents on July 6, 1802, including X380 for a Gun Lock, X381 for a Steam Boat, and X378 and X379 for Nail Cutting.

Based upon An Index of Black Inventors By State or Country of Residence (1834-2008) compiled by Margaret J. Collins, it appears that Robert H. Gray of Lexington was among the earliest African-American inventors to receive a patent in Kentucky. Gray’s patents included 525,203 for a Baling Press on August 28, 1894, and 537,151 for a Cistern Cleaner on April 9, 1895.

In addition, Northern Kentucky served as home to two historically renowned African-American inventors, Granville Woods and Fred Jones, as reported in a previous Our Rich History article in the NKyTribune.

So how does one go about researching early inventors of Kentucky?

Early cotton spinning mills in the US, such as this one at Fall River, Massachusetts, would have utilized patented technology and machinery. Source: First Cotton Mill, built in 1811, Fall River, MA; from a postcard “compliments of Dover Press, Printers, Fall River Cotton Centennial Exposition, State Armory, June 19-24, 1911.”

Currently there are no Kentucky inventor patents before 1836 found in GooglePATENTS. Moreover, only a limited number of patents before 1836 are listed on the official government patent database.

The reason for this gap stems from the fact that a devastating fire destroyed all 9,957 original patent documents at the U.S. Patent Office on December 15, 1836. US patents up to this point were never numbered in sequence, as are contemporary US patents. Only the inventor name and date granted were listed as primary identifiers. Patents granted after the 1836 fire were issued in sequential order, starting with the number one.

Arbitrary patent numbers suffixed with an “X” were assigned by the Patent Office to those patents from 1790-1836 —fewer than 3,000—that have been recovered over time. Today, recovered patents granted during the period 1790-1836 are known as the “X-Patents,” with the first 1790 patent granted to Samuel Hopkins (cited above) reissued as patent X1.

Northern Kentucky University’s (NKU) Steely Library has multiple historic patent indexes and tips on searching free online patent databases. We can even help you locate patents of regional inventors, such as Jennie Moore, an innovative late 19th century woman of Covington reported in an earlier Our Rich History column.

Historic US patents document early commercial developments in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The Northern Kentucky region, including Covington, Newport, and Maysville, included industries such as cotton factories, rolling mills and nail factories. The first US “X” patent granted to an inventor in Northern Kentucky appears to have been James Wright, of Covington, then part of Campbell County (1820 US Federal Census). According to historical patent indexes, Wright’s X2744 patent was granted on February 28, 1817 for a unique Spinning Wheel Improvement.

The first woman patentee from Kentucky was Charlotte W. Allen of Newport, Kentucky, for her “improved Smoothing-Iron Stand” (1867). Source: US Patent and Trademark Office.

The earliest listed patent granted to a woman inventor in Kentucky was to a Campbell County resident. Women Inventors (1790-1888) patent index recognizes Charlotte W. Allen of Newport, Kentucky and her US patent 62,800 for an “Improved Smoothing-Iron Stand” on March 12, 1867.

Besides searching for historic patents of your ancestors of long ago, do you have a great idea for a newfangled unique product, or a new business service? Consider free community resources specially designed to assist inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.

These include NKU’s Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) and NKU’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

PTRCs are a nationwide network of libraries that are designated by the US Patent & Trademark Office to disseminate patent and trademark information and to support the varied intellectual property needs of the public. SBDCs are regional cooperative programs between the Small Business Administration and often a college or university to support small businesses with marketing, financing, and other small business assistance. For additional information on any of these resources, contact John Schlipp at schlippj1@nku.edu or office phone (859) 572-5723.

John Schlipp, is an Associate Professor and Intellectual Property Librarian at NKU’s Steely Library. He also directs the Intellectual Property Awareness Center (IPAC) at NKU, assisting everyone from inventors to musicians in becoming aware of their intellectual property. The IPAC is an official Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Click here for details about this free community service.

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