The Congress shall have Power To…promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries….
Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8
With these words, the Founders acknowledged the value of knowledge and technology to the fledgling republic, and enabled the government to issue patents and copyrights.
A copyright protects some tangible expressive work, like a book, a play, a painting or a song. A patent, on the other hand, protects a practical invention, for example, the design of a new machine or industrial process. Both allow the owner of the copyright or patent to have exclusive control over their creation, for a limited period of time, in which no one else may legally reproduce the copyrighted work, or make, sell or use the patented machine, without the owner’s permission.
The photograph above, from the exterior of the Commerce Department building in Washington, D.C., is President Lincoln’s expression of the goal of patents: to give a financial incentive to inventors.
So what does any of this have to do with genealogy? Simply put, patent records are online, free and easily searched, and if one of your ancestors was granted a patent, it can give useful genealogical information, including:
- Placing your ancestor in a given town as of a given date
- Giving your ancestor’s signature
- Identifying your ancestor’s employer
- Providing names of your ancestor’s professional or personal associates, aiding cluster research (the FAN method)
And, of course, the details of what your ancestor invented can lend detail and color to any family history project.
Let’s jump in an look at a specific patent to get some sense of what a record actually contains. This is patent 961,441 to J.G. Harrison of Lawrence, Massachusetts, a patent applied for on 20 September 1909 and issued on 14 June 1910. James G. Harrison, age 49, is listed in the 1910 census in Lawrence, Ward 1, with an occupation of “overseer” in the “fiber matting” industry.
I’ve highlighted in yellow the parts that are of primary genealogical interest.
A few things to note here:
- For fixing the person at a particular place at a particular time you want to use the application (filing) date, not the patent (grant) date. It is possible that the person moved between the application and the granting of the patent. And in more modern times especially, the delay between filing an application and being granted a patent could be five years or more.
- The patent may have the signatures of the inventor, the attorney who prepared the application, as well as witnesses. The signature can be valuable, especially if you are trying to disentangle multiple people of the same name in the same area at the same time in other records. The names of the witnesses can also be useful. Do you see the same names anywhere else, perhaps witnessing a land sale or sponsoring the baptism of a child? Are they relatives? Or just co-workers?
- The inventor here is listed as “Assignor to American Fibre Matting Company of Lawrence, Massachusetts.” A patent can only be granted to an individual. It cannot be granted to a corporation. Only a real human can invent things. But the inventor can “assign” or give rights to the patent over to a corporation. Where you see language like the above, it strongly suggests that the assignee, in this case, American Fibre Matting Company, was Harrison’s employer at the time. But if you don’t see language like this, then this may indicate the inventor was working independently, for his own business, or perhaps tinkering on his own side project. Both are interesting things to know.
How to Search
What kind of ancestor might have a patent? Although United States patents were issued as early as 1790, activity really took off after the Civil War, as the country industrialized. So focus on ancestors who worked in trades that were undergoing industrialization. Look especially at those who worked in the classic New England “mill towns,” like Lowell, Lawrence, Nashua, Dover, Providence, New London, etc.
Google has a specialized database of U.S. patents, going back to the beginning. The URL of this database is: https://www.google.com/?tbm=pts .
Note that the database has a full-text index only. You cannot restrict a search to just a name or place field. It will always search the entire patent. Good terms to include in your search string include, the full name of your ancestor, as well as the town and state of where he lived. For the James Harrison example from above, a search of “James Harrison Lawrence Massachusetts” brought that patent to the top of the list. Once you have the listing, you can download a PDF version of the scanned patent.
- After entering the initial search string, click on the “Search Tools” menu item for some additional ways to filter the results. Putting a date constraint can be especially useful, to focus on the years your ancestor was actively working.
- If your ancestor had a surname like “Lever” or “Mill” or other such names that also had an industrial meaning, then your search efforts will be much more difficult, because of all the false hits.
- The scans of the patents appear to have been OCR’ed. So expect errors in the index.
Some more examples
George F. Barden, age 27, is listed in the 1870 census of Dover, New Hampshire, as a printer. He was issued a patent in 1866 for “An Improved Clothes Pin or Clamp.” Note he does not here assign ownership to a company. Is this invention somehow related to the work of a printer? Or is he tinkering on his own?
Robert R. Campbell, age 26, was enumerated in the 1870 census in Lowell, Massachusetts, Ward 3. His occupation was listed as “designer.” In 1872 he was granted a patent, “Design for a Carpet-Pattern.” Ownership is assigned to the Lowell Manufacturing Company, presumably his employer.
Note that with Campbell, this was not a machine or process that was being patented, but a specific industrial design. This is a special kind of patent, a “design patent” which can be granted for such eligible functional designs. So don’t limit yourself to considering only ancestors who were engineers or working in mechanical trades. Industrial designs can also have patents.
Finally, let’s look at Rutland, Vermont, not known historically for mills, but for stone quarries. Benjamin N. Lampman, age 42, was listed in the 1870 census as a “concrete sidewalk builder” and was issued a patent in 1871 for a “Sand Sifter.”
Searching Google Patents is easy and free. Although relatively few people ever applied for or received patents, if your ancestor lived in a part of the country that was a hotbed of industrial activity, like a classic New England mill town, and was in a mechanical trade, then it is worth taking a look. If you can find a patent for your ancestor it can yield genealogically useful information, including the name of his employer, his signature, names of business or personal associates, as well as fixing his location in a specific town as of a specific date.
Good luck with your search, and if you find an ancestor with a patent, let me know in a comment!