Updated: Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 6:00 AM
Samuel Hopkins (1765-1840) was granted the first U.S. patent (Patent No. 1) on *July 31*, 1790, for an improvement "in the making Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process."
Hopkins was a Philadelphia Quaker who later moved to New Jersey, although other sources say that he was from Pittsford, Vermont, and was living in Philadelphia when the patent was
Whatever the case, Patent No. 1 was signed by President Washington, Attorney General Randolph and Secretary of State Jefferson. The original document is still in existence in the collections of the Chicago Historical Society.
Patent No. 1 was important not only because it was the first of its kind but also because it was vitally linked the nation's early economy.
Potash was America's first industrial chemical. It is an impure form of potassium carbonate, mixed with other potassium salts. Until the 1860s it was derived solely from the ashes of hardwood trees and certain other plants.
Potash was a leading industrial alkali from antiquity until the close of the nineteenth century, when it was finally abandoned for most uses in favor of soda (sodium carbonate). It was essential for making soap and glass, dyeing fabrics, baking, and making saltpeter for gunpowder. Today its principal use is in fertilizers.
Soon after Hopkins's potash patent was granted, the Quebec Parliament passed an ordinance to "reward" him for his discovery. Legal experts now consider this Canada's first patent.
In addition to his first patent, Samuel Hopkins took out two later ones, both for a preparation of flour of mustard.For a five-year license for a furnace using his process, Samuel Hopkins required a down payment of $50, or a half-ton of potash, and another $150, or a ton and a
half of potash, over the next five years, payable to his agents in various cities.
During the fourteen-year term of Patent No. 1, potash sold at two hundred to three hundred dollars a ton, and over this period more than 90,000 tons, worth at least twenty million dollars, were exported from the United States.
Thanks in part to Hopkins, the United States remained the world's leading producer of potash until the 1860s. At that time, potash began to be mined from rich natural deposits in Germany, and the U.S. industry came to an end.
Read full story: Samuel Hopkins granted first patent in the United States