Amazing Inventors: Thomas Edison & the Electric Light Bulb

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light bulb that changed the world.

In the late 1870s, Thomas Alva Edison was attempting to create an affordable, sustainable, and practical incandescent light. Previous light bulbs had been created that were capable of emitting light; however, they burned out within minutes or hours making them impractical for regular use. By the time Edison took up the challenge, he was firmly entrenched in his famous Menlo Park laboratory and the world was abuzz with the possibilities.

photo of Thomas Alva Edison, by Louis Bachrach, c. 1922

Photo: Thomas Alva Edison, by Louis Bachrach, c. 1922. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

It is hard for us to understand the world they lived in back in the 1870s. No bright lights. Ever. Can it be imagined? There was candlelight and firelight, but no synthetic light. Imagine the bump in the night that needs to be investigated, but you can’t just flip the switch to illuminate the scene. No, you must light a candle and attempt to locate the intruder in the deep shadows of a single flame. There were no flashlights. No headlights on the car. No lit numbers on the clock. Most work had to end once the sun when down.

As Edison worked to illuminate the world, he faced several problems. As mentioned, the filament then used in light bulbs burned out too quickly, and it produced a black film on the inside of the bulb—which dimmed the weak light even more. Others had tried to perfect the light bulb. And they had failed. It just wasn’t possible, they said.

Enter Last Name

While we all know that Edison succeeded in his quest, it wasn’t a sure thing at the time. Today school children everywhere know and revere Edison.  But it wasn’t always that way. He wasn’t the only scientist of his age—just one of many working on similar projects. Since many of them had failed with their light bulb experiments, other inventors didn’t think that Edison could do it either. Edison’s lack of a regular education was a particular point of scorn—as shown in this 1879 newspaper article:

The truth is that Mr. Edison, although very successful in discovering improvements in subjects in which he was practically engaged, lacks the knowledge and training which have persuaded the greatest chemists in the world of the inadaptability of electricity for general lighting purposes.

article about Thomas Edison inventing the electric light bulb, New Haven Register newspaper article 16 August 1879

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 16 August 1879, page 2

Disregarding the naysayers, Edison persevered. At one point, it appeared that a filament made from platinum would last longer. Platinum has a higher resistance to heat than other metals. It also expands and contracts in sync with the glass of the bulb. This promising metal was needed in quantity to run experiments and—if proved successful—to provide enough material for the mass-produced product. However, general consensus maintained that the metal was so rare it was “about to become extinct.”

Edison didn’t give up. He wrote letters to American and British consuls throughout the world and to the scientific community. In his letters, he described the metal, “how and where it was found and might be found, how it could be identified and treated” and so on. He even included a sample of platinum, at his own expense. Encouragingly, he also offered a $20,000 prize.

Edison and Platinum, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 August 1901

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 August 1901, page 6

And so the race was on. What better way to motivate someone than to offer a cash prize for finding large deposits of platinum, and a steady string of customers for the product once the light bulb was in regular use? And prospectors did find it and mine it in abundance.

Platinum in California, New Haven Register newspaper article 26 July 1879

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 26 July 1879, page 1

In life, unlike a light bulb, few things happen in a vacuum. So what were some of the after effects of Edison’s venture into crowdsourcing for platinum? Edison’s ever-curious mind saw another business opportunity when he was learning to separate gold from platinum. Using his new method, he was able to take tailings—the “junk” materials discarded in the mining process—and extract the gold. In one ton of tailings that had cost him just $5, he was able to extract $1400 worth of gold. While the amount of gold that could be extracted varied, this was obviously an astonishing discovery.

As this 1880 newspaper article reported:

At the rate of $1400 to the ton…he computes that at the various mines around Oroville “there are at least $50,000,000 in the tailings.”

Edison's Discovery in Gold Mining, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 2 April 1880

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 2 April 1880, page 2

This is an astonishing sum! To understand his claim, $50 million in 1880 converts into about $1.2 trillion today.

Edison’s use of platinum in light bulbs greatly increased the metal’s value. In 1885, five years after Edison announced the creation of a practical light bulb, platinum’s market value was just $3 to $5 an ounce. Just five years later, its price nearly matched that of gold at $20 per ounce.

A King of Metals -- The Value of Platinum as Affected by Electric Lights, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 19 October 1890

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 19 October 1890, page 32

Platinum was now being produced in quantity—and other uses were found for it. The ring on your finger may even be made of platinum.

As this 1879 newspaper article reported:

As a result, large quantities of the rare metal were found in various locations. The gravel-heap of a single mine will, it is said, yield more platinum than all the rest of the world does now.

article about Thomas Edison and his use of platinum in electric light bulbs, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 October 1879, page 3

Edison proved the naysayers and doubters wrong:

Very few of the many investigators who had studied the subject of electric lighting believed that the experiments [by Edison] would prove important. Edison, it was supposed, had walked into a cul de sac, where others had preceded him and found no thoroughfare. A considerable amount of pity, both here and in England, was wasted on the ingenious man who had gone beyond his depth. Not having been properly educated in early life, he was ignorant, so they said, of the properties of matter.

article about Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light bulb, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 October 1879, page 3

In the end, platinum proved to be essential for the supporting wires to hold the filament, but still burned too quickly to provide a steady light when used as the filament itself. The best material for a filament proved to be carbonized bamboo fiber in a vacuum. Edison made this discovery while examining a bamboo fragment that had peeled off his fishing pole!

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Finding a suitable filament was not the only challenge Edison faced. Along the way, he also had to develop a superior pump to create the vacuum necessary in the bulb, a more powerful generator to produce the electricity, a realistic and safe electric delivery system for electricity, and more. Yet, he met all of these challenges.

Edison wasn’t the only one working on the electric light problem. And he wasn’t the only one to develop a bulb that worked. In England around the same time, Joseph Swan independently created a very similar bulb. In fact, Edison used some of Swan’s ideas as a foundation for his experiments. Swan and Edison later joined forces in the Edison-Swan Company, which then switched from bamboo filaments to cellulose ones.

Edison continued to refine his light bulb throughout the fall of 1879, and by the end of the year he was giving public demonstrations of his marvelous new invention. On 27 January 1880 he was granted U.S. patent 223,898 for his electric light bulb.

photo of the light bulb Thomas Edison used for public demonstrations of his new invention during Christmas week, 1879

Photo: the light bulb Thomas Edison used for public demonstrations of his new invention during Christmas week, 1879. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The genius of Edison comes out in several ways in this story of his perfection of the electric light bulb. He took a project he felt was interesting and worthwhile despite others loudly proclaiming it couldn’t be done—or if it could, it couldn’t be done by him because he lacked the knowledge and training (he was self-educated). He tackled the problem of not having enough of a necessary material by using crowdsourcing and incentives to gather more. While he could have easily worried and worked himself to the bone, he took time to escape from the project and listen to the guru in his head while enjoying the peace of a fishing trip. And it was there that he discovered the solution that was literally a part of his fishing rod. He took a lot of junk and literally turned it into gold. He put in the work and gained the satisfaction of making a lasting contribution to the world.

Historical newspapers (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/) are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors make an important invention? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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New Jersey Archives: 145 Newspapers for Genealogy Research

Although New Jersey is the 4th smallest state in the Union, it is the 11th most populous—and the most densely populated state in the country. One of the 13 original United States, New Jersey was the location of several major battles during the American Revolutionary War, making our historical newspaper collection a rich genealogy resource for researching your Revolutionary roots.

photo of the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey

Photo: Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. Credit: Merle9999; Wikimedia Commons.

If you are researching your ancestry from New Jersey, you will want to use GenealogyBank’s online New Jersey newspaper archives: 145 titles to help you search your family history in “The Garden State,” providing coverage from 1777 to Today. There are more than 69 million newspaper articles and records in our online NJ archives!

Dig deep into the online archives and search for obituaries and other news articles about your ancestors in these recent and historical NJ newspapers online. Our New Jersey newspapers are divided into two collections: Historical Newspapers (complete paper) and Recent Obituaries (obituaries only).

Search New Jersey Newspaper Archives (1777 – 1993)

Search New Jersey Recent Obituaries (1985 – Current)

Here is our complete list of online New Jersey newspapers in the archives. Each newspaper title in this list is an active link that will take you directly to that paper’s search page, where you can begin searching for your ancestors by surnames, dates, keywords and more. The NJ newspaper titles are listed alphabetically by city.

City Title Date Range Collection
Andover, Stanhope, Newton Township Journal 1/12/2005 – Current Recent Obituaries
Atlantic City Press of Atlantic City 1/1/1989 – Current Recent Obituaries
Bayonne Bayonne Journal 4/4/2002 – Current Recent Obituaries
Belleville Belleville Times 1/29/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Bergenfield, Dumont, New Milford Twin-Boro News 1/7/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Berlin Record Breeze 6/17/2005 – 5/21/2009 Recent Obituaries
Bloomfield Bloomfield Life 10/22/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Bloomingdale, Wanaque Suburban Trends 10/3/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Brick Brick Township Bulletin 11/6/2002 – 1/21/2010 Recent Obituaries
Bridgeton Bridgeton Evening News 2/13/1879 – 1/1/1923 Newspaper Archives
Bridgeton Washington Whig 7/31/1815 – 9/13/1834 Newspaper Archives
Bridgeton News of Cumberland County 7/31/2004 – 11/3/2012 Recent Obituaries
Bridgeton News of Cumberland County, The: Web Edition Articles 4/27/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Burlington Burlington Advertiser 4/13/1790 – 12/13/1791 Newspaper Archives
Burlington Rural Visitor 7/30/1810 – 7/22/1811 Newspaper Archives
Burlington New-Jersey Gazette 12/5/1777 – 2/25/1778 Newspaper Archives
Camden Camden Democrat 1/7/1860 – 12/25/1875 Newspaper Archives
Clifton Clifton Journal 4/4/2008 – Current Recent Obituaries
Collingswood Retrospect 1/6/2012 – Current Recent Obituaries
Cranford Cranford Chronicle 6/9/2005 – Current Recent Obituaries
Cranford Cranford Chronicle, The: Web Edition Articles 10/24/2008 – Current Recent Obituaries
East Brunswick East Brunswick Sentinel 11/4/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Edgewater Edgewater View 12/18/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Edison, Metuchen Edison-Metuchen Sentinel 10/15/2003 – Current Recent Obituaries
Egg Harbor City Egg Harbor Pilot 3/22/1860 – 2/20/1915 Newspaper Archives
Egg Harbor City Der Zeitgeist 4/6/1867 – 3/23/1872 Newspaper Archives
Egg Harbor City Atlantic Democrat 4/6/1861 – 7/26/1862 Newspaper Archives
Egg Harbor City Egg Harbor Beobachter 1/13/1859 – 4/28/1859 Newspaper Archives
Egg Harbor City Pilot 12/18/1858 – 3/19/1859 Newspaper Archives
Egg Harbor City Wochentliche Anzeiger 6/4/1859 – 8/6/1859 Newspaper Archives
Egg Harbor City Egg Harbor Aurora 8/18/1860 – 11/28/1860 Newspaper Archives
Egg Harbor City Beobachter Am Egg Harbor River 10/2/1858 – 12/25/1858 Newspaper Archives
Elizabethtown New-Jersey Journal 5/10/1786 – 12/29/1818 Newspaper Archives
Elizabethtown Federal Republican 1/25/1803 – 1/17/1804 Newspaper Archives
Elizabethtown Political Intelligencer 4/20/1785 – 5/3/1786 Newspaper Archives
Emerson, Hillsdale, Montvale Pascack Valley Community Life 10/2/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Englewood Northern Valley Suburbanite 1/21/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Fairlawn Community News 1/7/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Fairlawn Gazette 1/21/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Flemington Hunterdon County Democrat: Web Edition Articles 8/7/2008 – Current Recent Obituaries
Flemington Horse News 6/30/1994 – Current Recent Obituaries
Flemington Hunterdon County Democrat 6/17/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Fort Lee Fort Lee Suburbanite 12/11/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Franklin Lakes, Oakland Franklin Lakes-Oakland Suburban News 11/11/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Freehold Atlanticville 11/4/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Frenchtown Delaware Valley News 2/12/2004 – 9/25/2008 Recent Obituaries
Glen Ridge Glen Ridge Voice 10/12/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Glen Rock Glen Rock Gazette 11/5/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Hackensack Record 1/2/1985 – Current Recent Obituaries
Hackensack Hackensack Chronicle 4/23/2008 – Current Recent Obituaries
Haddonfield Haddon Herald 12/27/2000 – 12/11/2008 Recent Obituaries
Hoboken Hudson Reporter Publications 1/3/2008 – Current Recent Obituaries
Howell, Jackson, Lakewood, Plumstead Tri-Town News 11/11/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Jersey City Jersey Journal 5/2/1867 – 6/30/1962 Newspaper Archives
Jersey City Jersey City News 1/2/1902 – 3/31/1902 Newspaper Archives
Jersey City Jersey Journal, The: Web Edition Articles 7/31/2007 – Current Recent Obituaries
Jersey City City Journal 6/3/2004 – Current Recent Obituaries
Jersey City Waterfront Journal 7/24/2003 – Current Recent Obituaries
Kearny Kearny Journal 6/19/2003 – Current Recent Obituaries
Kinnelon Argus 12/16/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Lafayette, Oak Ridge, Ogdensburg, Stockholm, Sussex, Wantage, Vernon Advertiser-News 6/9/2005 – Current Recent Obituaries
Leonia Leonia Life 1/22/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Little Falls, Totowa Passaic Valley Today 10/8/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Mahwah Mahwah Suburban News 3/10/2011 – Current Recent Obituaries
Manalapan News Transcript 3/10/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Maple Shade Maple Shade Progress 8/18/2006 – 6/5/2009 Recent Obituaries
May’s Landing Atlantic Journal 10/13/1859 – 10/24/1862 Newspaper Archives
Medford Central Record 3/22/2007 – Current Recent Obituaries
Middletown, Hazlet Independent 1/5/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Midland Park Midland Park Suburban News 6/24/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Millburn, Short Hills Item of Millburn and Short Hills 4/15/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Millstone, Englishtown, Allentown Examiner 1/31/2001 – Current Recent Obituaries
Montclair Montclair Times 4/1/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Moorestown Newsweekly 11/14/2003 – 1/22/2009 Recent Obituaries
Morristown Palladium of Liberty 5/5/1808 – 12/26/1822 Newspaper Archives
Morristown Genius of Liberty 5/24/1798 – 3/5/1811 Newspaper Archives
Mount Pleasant Jersey Chronicle 5/2/1795 – 4/30/1796 Newspaper Archives
New Brunswick Jewish Journal 9/5/1956 – 8/27/1971 Newspaper Archives
New Brunswick New Brunswick Fredonian 4/24/1811 – 12/30/1829 Newspaper Archives
New Brunswick Political Intelligencer 10/14/1783 – 4/5/1785 Newspaper Archives
New Egypt New Egypt Press 10/18/2001 – 1/22/2009 Recent Obituaries
Newark Newark Star-Ledger 1/1/1964 – 12/31/1984 Newspaper Archives
Newark Newark Daily Advertiser 3/28/1832 – 12/29/1866 Newspaper Archives
Newark New Jersey Deutsche Zeitung 4/12/1880 – 6/30/1898 Newspaper Archives
Newark Centinel Of Freedom 10/5/1796 – 9/19/1876 Newspaper Archives
Newark Jewish Chronicle 10/14/1921 – 1/8/1943 Newspaper Archives
Newark New-Jersey Telescope 11/4/1808 – 11/7/1809 Newspaper Archives
Newark Star-Ledger 2/13/1996 – Current Recent Obituaries
Newark Star-Ledger, The: Web Edition Articles 7/10/2007 – Current Recent Obituaries
Newton AIM Sussex County 11/6/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
North Brunswick, South Brunswick North-South Brunswick Sentinel 1/3/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Nutley Nutley Sun 10/2/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Old Bridge Suburban 11/11/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Parsippany Parsippany Life 10/14/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Pemberton Community News 1/30/2004 – 3/5/2009 Recent Obituaries
Pennington Pennington Post 1/15/2003 – 6/11/2009 Recent Obituaries
Rahway East-Jersey Republican 5/22/1816 – 7/3/1816 Newspaper Archives
Ramsey Ramsey Suburban News 10/2/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Red Bank Hub 11/11/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Ridgewood Town News 1/7/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Ridgewood Suburban News – A Publication of The Ridgewood News 1/14/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Ridgewood Town Journal 1/7/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Ridgewood Ridgewood News 10/2/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Rockaway AIM Jefferson 12/18/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Rutherford South Bergenite 10/8/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Salem Salem Messenger and Public Advertiser 11/17/1819 – 4/25/1832 Newspaper Archives
Salem Today’s Sunbeam 7/29/2004 – Current Recent Obituaries
Salem Today’s Sunbeam: Web Edition Articles 1/21/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Secaucus Secaucus Journal 5/20/2004 – 2/4/2010 Recent Obituaries
Secaucus Jersey Journal 1/16/1999 – Current Recent Obituaries
Secaucus Hudson Dispatch 4/15/2010 – 10/20/2011 Recent Obituaries
Sewell News Report 8/26/2004 – 1/22/2009 Recent Obituaries
Somerville Messenger-Gazette, The: Web Edition Articles 1/24/2010 – Current Recent Obituaries
Somerville Chronicle 6/11/2005 – 3/3/2007 Recent Obituaries
Somerville Messenger-Gazette 6/9/2005 – Current Recent Obituaries
Sparta Sparta Independent 5/18/2005 – Current Recent Obituaries
Summit, Berkeley Heights, New Providence Independent Press 8/2/2006 – Current Recent Obituaries
Summit, Berkeley Heights, New Providence Independent Press: Web Edition Articles 10/23/2008 – Current Recent Obituaries
Teaneck Teaneck Suburbanite 10/2/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Trenton Trenton Evening Times 1/7/1883 – 3/15/1993 Newspaper Archives
Trenton Trenton State Gazette 1/12/1847 – 12/31/1898 Newspaper Archives
Trenton Trenton Federalist 12/2/1800 – 12/27/1824 Newspaper Archives
Trenton True American 3/10/1801 – 9/21/1818 Newspaper Archives
Trenton New-Jersey Gazette 3/4/1778 – 11/27/1786 Newspaper Archives
Trenton Sentinel 6/26/1880 – 11/13/1882 Newspaper Archives
Trenton New Jersey State Gazette 9/19/1792 – 12/31/1799 Newspaper Archives
Trenton Emporium and true american 6/16/1827 – 12/13/1828 Newspaper Archives
Trenton Miscellany 6/10/1805 – 12/2/1805 Newspaper Archives
Trenton Times of Trenton, The: Web Edition Articles 1/15/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Trenton Trentonian 4/12/2000 – 2/20/2012 Recent Obituaries
Trenton Times 3/21/2007 – Current Recent Obituaries
Verona, Cedar Grove Verona-Cedar Grove Times 10/2/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
Warren Warren Reporter 6/28/1997 – Current Recent Obituaries
Wayne Wayne Today 10/14/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
West Milford AIM West Milford 10/9/2009 – Current Recent Obituaries
West Milford West Milford Messenger 1/7/2005 – Current Recent Obituaries
Westfield Westfield Record-Press 6/10/2005 – 9/26/2008 Recent Obituaries
Williamstown Plain Dealer 11/1/2002 – 1/22/2009 Recent Obituaries
Willingboro, Burlington Burlington County Times 12/16/2002 – Current Recent Obituaries
Woodbridge Woodbridge Sentinel 11/5/2003 – Current Recent Obituaries
Woodbury Woodbury Daily Times 2/3/1897 – 12/30/1922 Newspaper Archives
Woodbury Gloucester County Times 12/24/2004 – 11/5/2012 Recent Obituaries
Woodbury Gloucester County Times, The: Web Edition Articles 3/12/2007 – Current Recent Obituaries
Woodbury South Jersey Times 11/9/2012 – Current Recent Obituaries
Woodland Park Herald News 7/30/1998 – Current Recent Obituaries

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In Search of Our Early American Ancestors’ Patents on Inventions

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that some of your ancestors may have patented inventions—and finding the government records or newspaper descriptions of these inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

When we think of patented inventions (not to be confused with land patents), the more famous inventors—such as Thomas Edison (inventor of the phonograph and 1000+ other inventions)—overshadow lesser-known American inventors.

But take a moment to reflect on life before the Industrial Revolution, when our early American ancestors were left to their own ingenuity. The family stories may have become lost over the years, but perhaps some of your ancestors invented unique tools or machines—and finding information about their patented inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

Necessity was the driving force behind many of these historical inventions, creating devices to deal with problems that don’t concern us today.

Peter Zacharie’s Mud-Moving Machine

For example, mud was a large problem in the late 18th century. When you cleared a swamp, it was a back-breaking, labor-intensive chore, and undoubtedly the inspiration for Peter Zacharie’s (of Baltimore) mud-moving device, which is described in this 1792 newspaper article.

Peter Zacharie's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

His device allowed a person to walk in a hollow wheel and raise, with what must have been a large spoon, a ton of mud. As the first one went up, a corresponding spoon simultaneously went down to get another load, thereby allowing a single man to empty it in a minute. What a fantastic labor-saving invention!

Although no drawing has been located of Zacharie’s machine, List of Patents for Inventions and Designs Issued by the United States from 1790 to 1847 (Edmund Burke, Commissioner of Patents, 1847) on Google Books, described it as an “Excavator, mud machine.” I imagine it more as an early elliptical machine—as this would undoubtedly have kept the farmer in shape!

Obadiah Herbert’s Spinning Wheel

That same 1792 newspaper reported that Obadiah Herbert (of Mount Pleasant) had created a spinning wheel that could eliminate the need for a second person. As noted, “the advantages of such a machine were evident.”

Obadiah Herbert's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

Miss E. A. Judkins Lace Loom

You’ll find descriptions of other lesser-known American inventions in early newspapers, such as this one by Miss E. A. Judkins (of Portland), who invented a loom to weave lace, fringes, etc., eliminating the need for tatting and crocheting.

E. A. Judkins's patent, National Gazette newspaper article 2 July 1839

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 July 1839, page 1

Patent Protection in Early America

These early inventions received patent protection under the “Act to Promote the Progress of Useful Arts” of 10 April 1790. Protection under this act was granted:

“to such persons or petitioners, his, her or their heirs, administrators or assigns for any term not exceeding fourteen years, the sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using and vending to others to be used, the said invention or discovery.”

1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

There were various other stipulations, and the act included a statement that the issued patent “would be prima facia evidence that the said patentee or patentees, was or were the first and true inventor or inventors, discover or discovers of the thing so specified.” Filing fees were specified, which totaled $3.85:

    • 50¢ to receive and file the petition
    • 10¢ per copy-sheet containing one hundred words
    • $2.00 for making out the patent
    • $1.00 for affixing the great seal
    • 25¢ to endorse the day of delivering the same to the patentee
1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

Where to Find These Historical U.S. Patents?

Unfortunately for family historians searching government records, about 10,000 of the earliest patent documents were destroyed in an 1836 fire at the Post Office building. Luckily, many American patentees kept copies of their prized patents.

Known as the “X-Patents,” less than 1/3 of the documents destroyed in that fire have been restored to the United States Patent Office—mostly from personal collections or archives. One of the surviving early documents was Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin.

drawing of Eli Whitney's cotton gin

Credit: Wikipedia Commons image

If you find one of the missing X-Patents in your family archives, be sure to contact the U.S. Patent Office. They’ll be appreciative you contacted them so that they can save more of these missing historical patents.

To learn more about patented early American inventions search GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives, along with Google Books and Google Patents. You’ll also find a number of accounts and related reference material in GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection.

photo of an 1871 advertising card for Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys

Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys advertising card, 1 January 1871

Also visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office. There you’ll learn that protection for patented inventions is not much longer than it was in 1790, but fees now run into thousands of dollars!

From their website:

“How long does patent protection last?

“For applications filed on or after June 8, 1995, utility and plant patents are granted for a term which begins with the date of the grant and usually ends 20 years from the date you first applied for the patent subject to the payment of appropriate maintenance fees. Design patents last 14 years from the date you are granted the patent. No maintenance fees are required for design patents.”

Recommended reading from the newspaper archives:

Do you have any American inventors in your family tree? Share with us in the comments!