John Keynes once said, “Ideas shape the course of history”. It was the conservation of these ideas that molded the very patent system in place today. To understand the effect that patents have on America one must first understand the origin. According to the United States Patent Office, the first patent in America was issued for the use of potash as a fertilizer by Samuel Hopkins. As of today there have been over six million patents issued today in America. Patents in America really started to pick up speed during the industrial revolution. Never before had such an economic boom incentivized the public to create better, more efficient ideas for success. Prior, places such as England had placed high fares on these patents with an overload of paperwork for the general public. This in effect, made patents a luxury that only the rich could afford. With only a small fraction of the population able to patent ideas, countries that implemented such difficult standards were killing innovation and therefore their chance at being on the ‘cutting edge’. It wasn’t till the young United States, started offering cheap easy accessible patents that ambitious new inventors could trust would hold their ideas in safety. People with ideas flocked in numbers to a country with seemingly limitless potential. From the year 1800 to 1850 the number of patents issued every year increased from 41 to 988. It is through these patents’ reliability and effectiveness that technology in the 19th century became a cornerstone great technological and economic boom.
One of the great indicators of the new patent age was the Crystal Palace that opened in 1851. People would travel from all over the world not to see the elegant, sleek, and futuristic glass frame but rather what was inside. The Crystal Palace featured the Great Exhibition which displayed the cutting edge scientific improvements that were ushered in by the industrial revolution. Friel highlights that one of the greatest spotlights came from the advancement of military technology. He writes, “Perhaps the most famous display in the American section of the Crystal Palace of the goods patented by Samuel Colt, a Hartford, Connecticut, maker of small arms, and by the Windsor, Vermont, rifle makers Robbins and Lawrence. Colt displayed examples of his patented pistols, along with the claim that they were made by machinery. Their success paved the way to the more highly publicized triumphs of the private manufacturers, like Colt and Robbins & Lawrence, whose Crystal Palace displays drew such attention” (Friedel, 322). The new small arms completely changed the way people saw weaponry. Instead of a knight who would need to train his whole life to fight in battle, machines could know make a relatively inexpensive gun that soldiers could operate with little to no experience. It becomes evident from this example that new ideas were being shared and spread across the country. It was this spread that led to the start of the military manufacturing that would change the way nations waged war. People such as Colt were changing the way people saw patents explore new markets.
Success came from reliable protections of intellectual property that pushed our society into new heights. The poster child of the industrial revolution was the textile industry. It is argued that no one had a bigger impact on this industry than Eli Whitney. Friedel writes, “The most famous of these was a Connecticut mechanic and promoter. In the 1800’s, while living in South Carolina, Whitney had patented a machine to speed up the cleaning of seeds out of the short staple cotton that grew in the upland South. Considerable question has been raised about the originality of Whitney’s ‘cotton gin’, but it did serve to gain him a reputation as an inventor”. The cotton gin was the first to remove the pesky seeps from cotton that required workers by hand to do what Whitney’s machine did in seconds. Whitneys patent was validated in 1807 and by the time of the civil war in 1861 there were over 3,000 textile mills in the US. By the middle of the 1850’s cotton was America’s leading export. With these new ideas came a great sense of accomplishment. Inventors became the new buzz, loved by investors contemplating the idea of new markets and hated by workers fearing they would be replaced. Ideas such as the cotton gin started a domino effect of production of new ideas. Stven Johnson highlights this effect when he writes, “Calculus, the electrical battery, the telephone, the steam engine, the radio – all these groundbreaking innovations were hit upon by multiple inventors working in parallel with no knowledge of one another” (Johnson). One great idea leads to the next and there on. It is all these ideas that compliment each other that make our ability to improve truly special.
None of the ideas that got us here today would be possible without the patent. Patents are valuable because they allow people to commercialize an idea for a certain amount of time without having to worry about infringement. One of the biggest fights over this infringement was highlighted in ‘The Last Days of Night’, when Moore wrote, “Even the attorneys litigating this billion dollar patent called it Edison vs Westinghouse. The issue before them… patent granted to Thomas Edison which described an incandescent electric lamp. It was without question the most valuable patent ever granted and Westinghouse was accused of infringing on it” (Moore, 56). Edison’s lightbulb was unlike anything before. His invention was the safest, brightest, and most advanced on the market. Edison was later able to have full control over his product thanks to the reliability of that patent. Although Edison was able to have total control over his invention, not all stories had a happy ending. Perhaps no story is more tragic or discerning as that of Nikola Tesla. Over his lifetime he filed for over 300 patents yet most of his technologies were known as a failure, until the present day. In modern day the idea of the alternating currents is still implemented in modern day electrical engineering. During a lecture he spoke, “Alternating currents offer advantages over today’s current which is popular in today’s day and age. I am confident that I will at once establish a superior adaptability of these currents to both the transmission of power and to the ways of motors” (Moore,103). It was this confidence that later turned into disappointment when the scientific community preferred and implemented Edison’s current over his own, leading him to make new endeavours that practically all ended in failures. This later led to him digging ditches for 2 dollars a day in the late 1800’s. Today he is renowned as a genius but yet when he passed he was reported as a ‘hollow shell’ of his former self with no investors willing to take a chance. Tesla was living proof that an inventor with a patent doesn’t always mean they will be successful.