Today marks the 223rd anniversary of the modern American patent system. On April 10, 1790, President George Washington signed the United States’ first patent act, giving the members of the Patent Board authority to grant a patent and inventors the rights to their creations. The Act defined a patent as "any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon not before known or used" and applicants were required to provide a patent specification, a drawing and, if possible, a model. Fees for a patent were between $4 and $5.
The first Patent Board was an impressive group. Ably led by Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who is considered the first patent examiner, he was joined on the board by Secretary of War, Henry Knox, and Attorney General, Edmund Randolph.
After examining the application, the board members would issue a patent if they deemed "the invention or discovery sufficiently useful and important," and would also decide on the duration of each patent, not to exceed 14 years. Their authority was absolute and could not be appealed.
Only months later, on July 31, 1790, Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia, PA, received the first U.S. patent for an improvement in "the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process." The original document, complete with President George Washington’s signature, is still held in the collections of the Chicago Historical Society.