Patents and One’s Sex

Most of us have heard the phrase from either parents or friends that “life is not fair.” For example, when Sybilla Masters, a resident of the town of Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania Colony, came up with a better idea of how to turn kernels of maize into hominy to make grits. She called the result Tuscarora Rice, and she and her husband sailed to England in 1712 to apply for an English patent. It was approved with one minor alteration, i.e., it was granted to her husband, Thomas Masters, a successful merchant.

In Colonial America, as in the Mother Country (England) and the rest of Europe, few women attended school unless she was a member of a wealthy family or the nobility. Even fewer went to college.

Depending on one’s station in life, marriages were often arranged to create an alliance with another country, for business or economic reasons, or to improve a family’s position in society. Ugly as it sounds, women were considered “property.” In the 21st Century, that sounds incredible, and some women will tell you even today, the fight for equal rights/pay/recognition, etc., still goes on.

We, as a country, inherited those views and laws from England, so when the Founding Fathers wrote Article I (Legislative), Section 8, Clause 8 – 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 –  their intent was to follow the English example of protecting the rights of the creators of intellectual property. Note there’s no mention of one’s sex in the clause’s words in what is known as “The Patent Clause.”

The Constitution was ratified on September 17th, 1787, and the task of issuing patents was initially given to the Secretary of State, who created a board to review each application. It took a few years for the first patent to be issued on July 31st, 1790, to Samuel Hopkins for a process of turning potash into fertilizer.

One couldn’t “file by mail.” Inventors were required to come to the seat of government, initially, New York City, then Philadelphia, and ultimately, Washington, D.C., to present their ideas and patent application.

So, given the societal norms of the 1790s, imagine what happened when Hannah Slater arrived at the Patent Office in 1793 to apply for a patent that created a stronger cotton thread than was possible via existing technology. The patent was issued in the name of Mrs. Samuel Slater.

We know that in 1798, Mary Metcalf, a well-known hatmaker in New England, invented a method of braiding straw. She was encouraged to apply for a patent but declined because, at the time, women couldn’t own property in Massachusetts, and a patent was considered property.

After Mrs. Slater, Hazel Irwin was issued a patent for a cheese press in 1808. A year later, in 1809, Mary Kies was issued a patent for a more efficient/cost-effective process of weaving straw with silk thread to make hats. The award of Kies’ patent generated a personal letter of congratulations and encouragement from Dolly Madison, wife of President Madison. Many historians consider the award of a patent to Mary Kies as the first to break the damn holding back the award of patents to women.

The point of this post is two-fold. First, we don’t know how many women came up with “patentable” ideas in the first years of our nation since they suspected they (like Metcalf) wouldn’t benefit from holding the patent. If they were granted a patent, they couldn’t own it; their husband did.

Two, the existence of Mrs. Slater, Mrs. Metcalf, Mrs. Irwin, and Mrs. Kies proves women were actively involved in creating new ideas and technology back in the early days of this country.

Image is of woman wearing a straw hat made possible by Mary Kies’ 1809 patent. Library of Congress.

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