In an important footnote to U.S. economic history, July 31, 1790 marks the date of the first patent granted in the U.S. The Patent Board had only recently been signed into law, and the patent application submitted for improvements “in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process” was reviewed by no less than Secretary of State and patent-examiner-in-chief, Thomas Jefferson.

When the patent was signed by President George Washington and awarded to its inventor Samuel Hopkins in 1790, there were signs already of the intellectual property’s promise.

Potash,” as it is more commonly referred to, is a substance derived from the ash of burned plants and an essential ingredient in the making of soap, glass, fabric dye, and even gunpowder, through the 19th century.

During the fourteen-year term of Hopkins’ patent, potash sold at $200-$300 a ton, and more than 90,000 tons, worth at least $20 million, were exported from the U.S.

For a five-year license to one furnace using his potash invention, Hopkins required a down payment of $50, or a half-ton of potash, and another $150, or a ton and a half of potash, over the next five years, payable to his agents in various cities. 

Jefferson received only two more patent applications in 1790. Both were granted. But neither can quite claim the same distinction as Hopkins: U.S. inventor no. 1.

Clarification: Patents granted from 1790-1836 were not filed using a serial number system. Instead, they were given an “X” as a prefix. The patent for Hopkins' potash production is known to the USPTO as Patent X1.


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