On June 21, 1788 the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It contains a clause in Article I, Section 8 providing that Congress shall have the 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.”
This led to the Patent Act of 1790, signed into law by George Washington in April of that year. Since the founding, patent protection has been afforded to “new and useful” processes, machines, articles of manufacture, compositions of matter, ornamental designs and even plant strains. Patent protection provides inventors the right to exclude others from making, using, selling or importing an invention throughout the United States without the inventor’s consent.
On July 31, 1790, Samuel Hopkins was granted Patent No. 1 for the “making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process.” Since Patent No. 1, new patent grants have been numbered pretty much sequentially.
On June 19, 2018, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued U.S. Patent Number 10,000,000. The patent covers “Coherent Ladar Using Intra-Pixel Quadrature Detection,” a technology relating to laser detection and ranging that could have applications in fields such as autonomous vehicles, medical imaging, defense systems, and space exploration. The inventor is Joseph Marron and the patent is owned by Raytheon Company. Ten million patents over 228 years. That represents an average of more than 43,000 patents issued each and every year since 1790. Because patents only protect “new and useful” inventions, this reflects an amazing amount of creativity, innovation and discovery.
Over the years, there have patents issued for things that have changed technology and how we communicate and travel such as cell phones, global text messaging and automobiles, life saving and life changing drugs like Symbicort and Prozac, even how we cook our food, i.e. microwaves. Patents have also issued for some pretty silly ideas like nicotine-infused coffee (when you really need both), electrified table cloth (to keep bugs and sneaky toddlers away), eyeglasses affixed by body piercing (really?) and even a paddle wheel powered aircraft (Capt. Samuel Clemens meets Capt. Sully Sullenberg).
Regardless of the subject matter of any of the 10,000,000 patents issued since Hopkins received Number 1 and regardless of any ethical issues related to things like drug and medical device patents or DNA, it remains that the United States Patent system has been in effect and rewarding the “progress of science and useful arts” since the beginning of this Nation. The Founders may never have envisioned 10,000,000 patents or “Coherent Ladar,” but they did envision and seek to instill a culture of invention and improvement by providing inventors with certain exclusive rights. The 10 millionth patent granted since 1790 is a continued celebration of this vision for the United States.