THIS week marks the anniversary of the 1790 issuance of the first patent by the United States Patent Office. The first patentee, one Samuel Hopkins of Vermont, was very much like the millions who would follow in his footsteps: average and largely obscure. His invention for making ``pot and pearl ashes'' (potash) made a big hit with the patent board composed of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of war, and the attorney general. By the 19th century, inventiveness was so widespread in America that it was difficult to determine which individual came up with a better idea first. Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper. Well, not really. Obed Hussey of Baltimore beat him to the Patent Office, but it was McCormick who promoted, refined, and marketed the machine. The same might be said of Isaac Singer and the sewing machine, even though it was originally invented by Elias Howe. And the list of disputed inventors goes on and on.
No federal government agency was busier than the Patent Office in the 1800s, leading one commissioner to exclaim that ``America has become known the world around as the home of invention.'' Originally it was located in four rooms of a Washington hotel. But in 1836 it was destroyed by fire, and the building that replaced it was conspicuous for housing thousands of models of inventions that were eventually turned over to the Smithsonian Institution.
Many of the 19th-century inventions were trivial, as illustrated by a nose-improver hawked on the streets of the nation's capital in the 1880s. Consisting of a two-part metal shell connected by a hinge, the device could be affixed to the nose to produce whatever shape the user had in mind. It was to be worn only at night and the manufacturer claimed it would bring results in a mere eight weeks. ``The inventor boasts,'' read a contemporary account, ``that it will keep its shape until its owner grows tire d of it, when he may buy an improver with a different mold, and appear with another equally beautiful nose.''
However, other inventions would transform American life, such as the 1,092 contributed by Thomas Edison in his New Jersey think tanks that, Edison boasted, would bring forth ``a minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so.'' Or they would establish a new word in the nation's language, such as zipper, which was the name that the B. F. Goodrich Company would give to the slide fasteners used on its rubber boots.
After 4.5 million patents, the American system of invention is still much the same as it was in 1790, with its first-come, first-served principle. Of course, the facilities in the Patent and Trademark Office, in Arlington, Va., are more modern. But one still has to search the records -- cataloged according to subject matter -- to ensure the novelty of the idea; make application, submit drawings; pay fees and take an oath. And then wait.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.