Making the Future: A History of Invention and Patent Law

September 29, 2016

Making the Future: A History of Invention and Patent Law

 Fire.  By definition, it’s “combustion or burning, in which substances combine chemically with oxygen from the air and typically give out bright light, heat, and smoke.”

Mankind first harnessed this force of nature over 1 million years ago and by doing so completely altered the path of human development and migration on earth. 

Our ancestors who created fire in The Early Stone Age – members of homo erectus – couldn’t have understood the magnitude of their discovery. To early man, fire simply meant a source of light and heat, a way to cook food, defense against predators, a gathering spot, and the closest thing to home they’d come across.      

We often think that our nomadic ancestors weren’t as bright or resourceful as we are in the 21st century. And yet, the ability to control fire shows that the human species has long searched to improve their lives, and we are hardwired to invent. 

We’ve come a long way since then. We make discoveries and innovate everyday. Join us as we take a journey through time and learn how the invention process has evolved and fuels the future of innovation.

A History of the Earliest Inventions

While fire was not the earliest recorded invention, it was the essential discovery that ignited a series of other inventions and discoveries in the ancient world. The first recorded inventions by mankind were tools, fashioned out of stone, wood, antler and bone, 10 million years ago. 8-9 million years later, man added the controlled use of fire to his list of inventions.  

Next came the advent of clothing several thousand years later, between 25,000 and 50,000 BC; followed by the earliest boats in approximately 10,000 BC.  

The construction of boats led to the beginning of human settlement and agriculture only several hundred years later, shortly followed by the first handmade bricks – used for construction purposes in the Middle East. 

In 3,500 BC, humans invented the first wheel in Mesopotamia - another monumental creation in our history. This was followed by another biggie 1,500 years later when Semites in the Middle East invented the earliest form of the alphabet.

The next 2,500 years brought about the creation of irrigation systems, tools and weapons crafted from iron, the discovery of static electricity, the advent of the first gear-driven clockwork system, the invention of steam power, paper, concrete and windmills.   

A multitude of additional inventions followed, but none quite as remarkable or useful as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press and movable type in the year 1450 AD. Gutenberg’s press allowed information to travel at a pace previously unimagined. 

Concurrently, the mapmaking process was revolutionized, Galileo designed a basic thermometer, a practical telescope and a mercury barometer, and Sir Isaac Newton introduced his three laws of motion

The First Recorded Patent and Protected Idea

Today, the term “inventing” is almost synonymous with “patents” and “intellectual property.” Although historically patent law and protecting the rights and ideas of a person are fairly new concepts that have significantly evolved over the last several hundred years.

The word “patent” is derived from the Latin term literae patents, which is translated as “open letters.” Sovereign bodies granted patents. The first evidence of an incentive-based system where potential inventors disclosed something new to society is found during the Classical Period in the Greek colony of the Sybarites. For example, if a chef created an exceptionally delicious dish, a law was enacted that forbade anyone else from creating that same dish for a year, and the original creator earned all profits from that dish. However, after the colony was destroyed, the Greeks and Romans – who valued knowledge over practice – outlawed monopolies over, well, anything; based on the ideologies of Aristotle and Plato.    

The First Recorded Patent System 

It was not until Renaissance Italy that the concept of protecting intellectual property once again appeared in our history. It was during the Renaissance that the first actual patent was issued. 

The Republic of Florence Architect granted Filippo Brunelleschi a patent in 1421 for his marble transportation ship that was used to construct his Duomo of Florence. However, his ship sank on its voyage and local textile and craftsmen guilds took it upon themselves to continue this system and granted exclusive rights to anyone who invented certain patterns or designs with silk or wool. This process created the first patent statute, which the Venetian Republic issued in 1474 and is the foundation of current day patent law.  

As Venetian artisans and merchants traveled around Europe peddling their trades and inventions, many other European countries adopted their patent system. By the 1600’s, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the English had all enacted almost identical patent systems in their respective territories.  

English Patent Policy

In efforts to grow England’s manufacturing economy, Elizabeth I aggressively pushed the use of patents of monopoly, granting 50 patents from 1561 to 1590. The Queen also shifted away from granting patents to foreigners and focused on issuing them to locals, as well as “played favorites” within her court, granting monopolies on “well-established techniques or commodities” to favored members, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, leading to widespread abuse of the patent system in England.  

Ultimately, Parliament stepped in, issuing the 1624 Statute of Monopolies in Section 6, which stated that only patents granted for novel ideas or creations would be acknowledged. This system governed patent law for 200 years in England until the 1852 Patent Law Amendment Act was passed, which added the requirement of “specification,” or providing a full description of the invention and its operation which would show the scope of the patent.” This addition to English patent law proved to be a significant contribution to modern day laws.  

Patent Policy Comes to America

In 1787, America’s founders laid the groundwork in the U.S. Constitution for granting inventors patent rights, and after the Constitution was ratified in 1788, came America’s first Patent Act. But it was not until the Patent Act of 1952 that major reform was enacted on existing policies, and “non-obviousness” of procedure or product was made a requirement. This Act has been called the backbone of America’s modern patent system and law. The first recipient of an American patent was Samuel Hopkins in 1790. Hopkins invented a process of making potash – an ingredient in fertilizer. His patent was signed by the first U.S. President, George Washington.  

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is an agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce and was established as a separate agency on January 2, 1975.  

Today’s American Patent System

Since Hopkins recipe for potash, more than 6 million patents have been granted in the United States of America, a statistic that has, undoubtedly, shaped the history and future of the country. A single visit to the USPTO’s website reveals that the system has become incredibly advanced and fine-tuned since 1790. For more information on America’s current patent application process for inventors, check out our article, “You can’t spell ‘patient’ without ‘patent.’” 

From nomadic ancestors to Venetian craftsmen, to the English Parliament and the USPTO, the concepts of invention and patents have morphed and evolved into the complex system we have today. 

If history has taught us anything, it’s that there’s no telling what innovative leaps and bounds mankind will make in the future. 

We’ll just have to wait and see!  

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