Celebrating Presidents Who Advocated for the U.S. Patent System

“Behold oh! America, your sons. The greatest among men.” L. Kurz ; lith. by Chas. Shober, Chicago. c1865

Happy President’s Day!

President’s Day is to honor all Presidents of the United States, but it has historically been a celebration of President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln.  While these leaders are known for a great many things, it is perfectly correct to notice that both of these great Presidents played an important role in the development of the U.S. patent system. Given that today we celebrate Presidents, what better way for us to honor Presidents Washington and Lincoln than by reviewing their role in the U.S. patent system and their various interactions with the U.S. Patent Office.

While it will be a hard pill to swallow for those who seek to dismantle the patent system, both Presidents Washington and Lincoln were strong proponents of a functioning patent system. Both men recognized the necessity of incentivizing innovators.


George Washington (President 1789 – 1797)

President Washington, the founder of our country, was a strong proponent of a patent system. In fact, on January 8, 1790, President Washington delivered his first State of the Union speech to Congress. In this first ever State of the Union, only months after the ratification of the Constitution and assuming Office, President Washington asked Congress to exercise its powers granted in the Constitution to enact a patent statute.

Washington’s State of the Union was a mere 1,096 words, yet he devoted this passage to patents:

The advancement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures by all proper means will not, I trust, need recommendation; but I can not forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home, and of facilitating the intercourse between the distant parts of our country by a due attention to the post-office and post-roads.

The many who are fighting against the patent system and trying to dismantle the patent system before our eyes will no doubt be quite surprised to learn that our greatest leader, the Father of our nation, thought it was self evident that a patent system was essential to provide encouragement to inventors to produce new and useful inventions. While he acknowledged that the importance of a patent system should be self evident, he couldn’t “forbear” the opportunity to implore Congress to act with all due haste.

Will all the matters that would need to be entrusted to and addressed by the new Congress, the first Congress, the enactment of a patent system was deemed to be of the utmost importance. That is no doubt why the first Patent Act was the third law passed by Congress. Indeed, the first Patent Act, the Patent Act of 1790, was signed into law on April 10, 1790, just several months after President Washington asked Congress to take action.

But President Washington’s impact on the U.S. patent system did not cease with his championing the establishment of patent laws. On July 31, 1790, President Washington signed the first ever U.S. patent, granting rights to Samuel Hopkins on a process of making potash, an ingredient used in fertilizer. Attorney General Edmund Randolph also signed the first patent to Samuel Hopkins.

The 1790 Patent Act established a Patent Board, giving the members the power to grant a patent. Their authority was absolute and could not be appealed. The first board members included Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, who was considered the first administrator of the American patent system and the first patent examiner; Henry Knox, Secretary of War; and Edmund Randolph, Attorney General. The Department of State had the responsibility for administering the patent laws, and the President counter-signed the patent grant.

While the first U.S. patent ever issued is a memorable patent, perhaps the most significant invention awarded a patent signed by President Washington was the patent on Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which issued March 14, 1794, and which was further also signed by James Madison.


Abraham Lincoln (President 1861 – 1865)

President Abraham Lincoln, beloved for ending slavery and preserving the Union, is the first and only President to have been awarded a patent. Lincoln’s patent U.S. Patent No. 6,469, was titled “Buoying vessels over shoals.” The patent application was filed on March 10, 1849, and the patent issued on May 22, 1849, just over three months after filing. Lincoln’s invention related to a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steamboat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water without discharging their cargoes.

Approximately ten years after receiving his patent, still not yet having been elected President of the United States, Lincoln delivered his second speech on discoveries and inventions. The first was delivered in April of 1858, the often cited second speech was completely rewritten from his first speech on the topic and delivered first on February 11, 1859, at Illinois College at Jacksonville. It is in this speech that Lincoln simply and eloquently explained that the patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

The entire passage from this famous Lincoln speech is as follows:

Next came the Patent laws. These began in England in 1624; and, in this country, with the adoption of our constitution. Before then any man might instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.

Less well known than Lincoln’s often cited “fire of genius” line is something of even greater significance that Lincoln said shortly before uttering this now famous line. Abraham Lincoln explained that the three innovations in the history of the world surpassed all others. These innovations were above all others because they facilitated “all other inventions and discoveries.” One of these three seminal innovations was the “introduction of patent laws.”

Lincoln explained:

[I]n the world’s history, certain inventions and discoveries occurred, of peculiar value, on account of their great efficiency in facilitating all other inventions and discoveries. Of these were the arts of writing and of printing, the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent laws.

Lincoln’s fascination to the patent system did not end here. After having been re-elected President of the United Sates in 1865, the Old Patent Office was selected to host President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. The gala event took place in the model room of the Patent Office. This marked the first time that a government building was used for the inaugural ball.



Perhaps the two most revered and celebrated leaders the United States has ever had were champions of a patent system. These men well understood the importance of a patent system, the incentives that a patent grant provides to innovators and the critical importance patents play in commerce.

There are those today, who through a pretentious and wholly inappropriate arrogant self righteousness state as fact that patents are evil and kill innovation. The next time you hear such ignorant mocking of the patent system you will know better.

Beware those who would mock the beliefs of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. What is the nature of the snake oil they really peddling? What self interest are they serving?


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One comment so far.

  • [Avatar for Paul Cole]
    Paul Cole
    February 19, 2013 02:22 pm

    The inventor OLIVER EVANS was known to George Washington and automated a grisdtmill about 3 miles west of Mount Vernon which, according to Wikipedia, was used to support a whiskey distillery which became one of the largest in America. The site is now open to the public and includes a reconstruction of the mill works. Oliver Evans also supplied milling machinery to Thomas Jefferson, whose opinion of the Evans patents is available here


    The letter is worth reading in its entirety and is referenced in Graham v John Deere. Amongst other things Jefferson wrote this:

    “It happened that I had myself a mill built in the interval between Mr. Evans’ first and second patents. I was living in Washington, and left the construction to the mill-wright. I did not even know he had erected elevators, conveyers and hopper-boys, until I learnt it by an application from Mr. Evans’ agent for the patent price. Although I had no idea he had a right to it by law, (for no judicial decision had then been given,) yet I did not hesitate to remit to Mr. Evans the old and moderate patent price, which was what he then asked, from a wish to encourage even the useful revival of ancient inventions. But I then expressed my opinion of the law in a
    letter, either to Mr. Evans or to his agent.

    … And particularly, I should be unwilling to be brought into any difference with Mr. Evans, whom, however, I
    believe too reasonable to take offence at an honest difference of opinion. I esteem him much, and sincerely wish him wealth and honor. I deem him a valuable citizen, of uncommon ingenuity and usefulness.”

    The milling inventions of Oliver Evans did much to help establish American agriculture in the early days of the Republic and it is strongly arguable that he has been unjustly forgotten. It should also be remembered that George Washington met both James Rumsey and John Fitch and was aware of their controversy concertning the invention of the steamboat.