Wednesday, March 15, 2006

New Archive Search Tool May Reveal Lost U.S. Patents

Librarians and historians know that researching early U.S. patents is often a frustrating exercise that ends in disappointment. Although the U.S. government registered approximately 10,000 patents from 1790 through 1836, almost all original U.S. patent documents and files from this period were lost in a devastating fire that swept through the Patent Office in the early morning hours of December 15, 1836. The Patent Office, using funds provided by Congress, attempted to rebuild its files by obtaining copies of patents from inventors. About 2,500 patents, the majority from the 1820s and 1830s, were recovered in this way. For the remainder, all that is known is the title, inventor name, and date. These patents are called "X" patents because of the unique serial number assigned to them many years later. Patent No. X1, the first U.S. patent, was granted to Samuel Hopkins on July 31, 1790. Copies of recovered X patents, many in handwritten script, are available in the USPTO web-based patent database.

Some experts believe that there are many more early U.S. patents waiting to be discovered in court archives, libraries, archives and attics. Indeed, over the years researchers and patent buffs have stumbled across several missing patents in archives and libraries. One of the largest caches was discovered in August 2004 when two New Hampshire patent attorneys located 14 lost patents in Dartmouth Library. A systematic search of courthouse archives and libraries would undoutably turn up more, but none has ever been undertaken (to my knowledge), probably because the cost would be prohibitive.

Fortunately, patent researchers now have access (until May 31) to a powerful new tool that may help them identify copies of lost pre-1836 U.S. patents located in archives, museums and libraries around the world. ArchiveGrid, an initiative of RLG, contains collection descriptions of nearly a million historical documents, personal papers and family histories from thousands of institutions. In effect, ArchiveGrid is a union catalogue of archival collections. RLG is seeking additional grants and sponsorships to keep the system free of charge.

A simple keyword search in ArchiveGrid discovered the following tantalizing patent documents, none of which appear in the USPTO database. (X patent number obtained from list of name and date patents, July 31, 1790 to July 2, 1836.)

Patent number: X3502
Merrow, Joseph M., 1848-1947.
Patent, gunpowder, 1822 April 19.
1 sheet ; 25 cm.
Notes and Summaries: Old Sturbridge VillageMStuO
Shelving control number: 1993.63 pc
Photocopy of "Letters patent" in making gunpowder, in names of Joseph M. Merrow and Robert McKee, Jr.See also Visual Resource Library for photo of Merrow Mill, and Manuscript Information File.McKee, Robert, Jr.RLG Union Catalog Record ID: MAOV93-A103

Patent Number: X5325
Mosher, Reuben.
Patent, 1829.
l item.
New York State Library
Manuscripts and Special Collections
New York State Library
Shelving location: Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY 12230.N
Shelving control number: 21208

Patent Number: X8725
Martin Rich patent, 1835. 1 item.
Patent issued to Martin Rich for an improvement in Iron Dogs for a Saw Mill called the Gauge Saw Mill Dog. Signed by Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, and dated March 27, 1835.Preferred Citation: Martin Rich Patent, #272m. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.Cornell University LibraryNICShelving control number: 272m.