Unrestrained and promiscuous grants of patents

The United States Patent Office granted Letters Patent No. 1 to John Ruggles of Thomaston, Maine, on the 13th day of July, 1836. Ruggles’s patent was not the first patent granted by the patent office, but it was the first patent granted by the patent office after the Great Fire of 1836, which destroyed about 10,000 patent records, or after reorganization of the patent office in 1836.

Ruggles was 47 years old and serving in the Congress as a senator when he was granted Letters Patent No. 1. He is credited with framing the bill for the reorganization for the United States Patent Office in 1836.

Before the reorganization of the patent office, 11,348 patents had been granted, many of which were thought to be worthless because the Secretary of State didn’t have any power to refuse a patent for lack of either novelty or usefulness, nor were patent applications examined on the merit. In a Senate report accompanying Senate Bill No. 239, 24th Congress, 1st Session (28th day of April, 1836), Ruggles outlined the evils of granting patents without examination. The evils were that:

  • patents were infringing upon one another or on public rights not subject to patent privileges;
  • the country was being flooded with embarrassing patent monopolies;
  • lawsuits were being filed at an alarming rate; and
  • frauds were stemming from sales of speculative patent rights.

Afraid of the extent of the evils that would result from the “unrestrained and promiscous grants of patent privileges”—at the time patents were being granted at a rate of more than 1,000 a year—Ruggles recommended that a check be placed on granting of patents so that only meritorious inventors were granted patents.

174 years later, it's not clear how well the reorganization of the patent office has worked, and, woefully, many of the evils outlined by Ruggles are present today. About 11,348 patents were granted from 1790 to 1836 [1]. If this amount is spread evenly over 46 years (from 1790 to 1836), then the number of patents per year would be roughly 236. After the reorganization, from 1836 to 2010, over 7.8 million patents have been granted, about 44,827 patents a year if the patents are spread evenly over 174 years.

Interestingly, the reorganization of the patent office was prompted by public outcry. Today, there are murmurings about the need for reform in patent law, but certainly not public outcry sufficient to prompt immediate change.

[1] Patent Laws and System of the United States, New American Supplement to the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 4, 1898, page 2312.