The Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) empowers Congress: "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."
The first Patent Act provided that an examining board, consisting of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney-General, or any two of them, might grant a patent for fourteen years, if they deemed the invention useful and important. The patent itself was to be engrossed and signed by the President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney-General. And the cost was to be three dollars and seventy cents, plus the cost of copying the specifications at ten cents a sheet.
Samuel Hopkins - First American Patents IssuedThe first inventor to avail himself of the advantages of the new Patent Act was Samuel Hopkins of Vermont, who received a patent on the 31st of July for an improved method of "Making Pot and Pearl Ashes." The world knows nothing of this Samuel Hopkins, but the potash industry, which was evidently on his mind, was quite important in his day. Potash, that is, crude potassium carbonate, useful in making soap and in the manufacture of glass, was made by leaching wood ashes and boiling down the lye. To produce a ton of potash, the trees on an acre of ground would be cut down and burned, the ashes leached, and the lye evaporated in great iron kettles. A ton of potash was worth about twenty-five dollars.
Two more patents were issued during the year 1790. The second went to Joseph S. Sampson of Boston for a method of making candles, and the third to Oliver Evans, for an improvement in manufacturing flour and meal. The fourth patent was granted in 1791 to Francis Baily of Philadelphia for making punches for types. Next Aaron Putnam of Medford, Massachusetts, thought that he could improve methods of distilling, and John Stone of Concord, Massachusetts, offered a new method of driving piles for bridges. And a versatile inventor, Samuel Mulliken of Philadelphia, received four patents in one day for threshing grain, cutting and polishing marble, raising a nap on cloth, and breaking hemp.
Then came improvements in making nails, in making bedsteads, in the manufacture of boats, and for propelling boats by cattle. On August 26, 1791, James Rumsey, John Stevens, and John Fitch took out patents on means of propelling boats. On the same day Nathan Read received one on a process for distilling alcohol.
More than fifty patents were granted under the Patent Act of 1790, and mechanical devices were coming in so thick and fast that the department heads apparently found it inconvenient to hear applications. So the Act of 1790 was repealed. The second Patent Act (1793) provided that a patent should be granted as a matter of routine to any one who swore to the originality of his device and paid the sum of thirty dollars as a fee. No one except a citizen, however, could receive a patent. This act, with some amendments, remained in force until 1836, when the present Patent Office was organized with a rigorous and intricate system for examination of all claims in order to prevent interference.
Under the second Patent Act came the most important invention yet offered, an invention which was to affect generations then unborn. This was a machine for cleaning cotton and it was offered by a young Yankee schoolmaster, temporarily sojourning in the South.