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Take a Cotton to a Sharp Idea? Patent It

The Constitution offered protection to countless inventors who helped shape the nation. Documentation of these rights, such as above, is stored in the National Archives.

October 20, 2003|John Carlin

Throughout the nation's history, our great thinkers and inventors have given meaning to the concept of American ingenuity. The founding fathers recognized the need for our Constitution to carefully balance the rights of these great thinkers and inventors to earn a living against the needs of society to benefit from their ideas and innovations. When they framed the Constitution, they were careful to include language that empowered Congress "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."

These rights became the basis for the Patent Act of 1793. This law originally granted the secretary of State -- then Thomas Jefferson, a great inventor in his own right -- the power to issue a patent to anyone who presented working drawings, a written description and a model and paid an application fee.

Patents, and the ingenuity they were designed to protect, have helped shape our commerce, our culture and our way of life. More than 125,000 original patent documents and drawings are among the billions of documents maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration. In addition to patent, census and military records, NARA also holds in trust for the American people the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- documents that framed our democracy.

Here are highlights of two patents that have changed the course of our history:

Barbed wire. Life in the American West was reshaped by a series of patents for a simple tool that helped ranchers tame the land -- barbed wire. Barbed wire not only simplified the work of the rancher and farmer but it significantly affected political, social and economic practices throughout the region.

Wire fences used before the invention of the barbed wire consisted of only one strand, which was constantly broken by the weight of cattle pressing against it. Michael Kelly made a significant improvement with an invention that "twisted two wires together to form a cable for barbs -- the first of its kind in America," according to Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum, the authors of "The Wire That Fenced the West." Known as the "thorny fence," Kelly's double-strand design made the fence stronger, and the painful barbs taught cattle to keep their distance.

Predictably, other inventors sought to improve upon Kelly's designs; among them was Joseph Glidden, a farmer from De Kalb, Ill. Glidden's invention made barbed wire more effective not only because he described a method for locking the barbs in place but also because he developed the machinery to mass-produce the wire. Glidden's patent remains the most familiar style of barbed wire.

The invention and widespread use of barbed wire changed life on the Great Plains dramatically and permanently. Land and water once open to all was fenced off by ranchers and homesteaders. Cattlemen, increasingly cut off from what they regarded as common-use resources in such territories as Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, first filed land-use petitions and then waged fierce range wars against the property-owning farmers. Gradually, there was a discernible shift in who controlled the land and, subsequently, the power.

Barbed wire also had a major effect on Native Americans. Further squeezed from lands they had always used, they began calling barbed wire "the devil's rope." Fenced-off land meant that more and more cattle herders -- regardless of race -- were dependent on the dwindling public lands, which rapidly became overgrazed.

The cotton gin. In 1792, Eli Whitney, a young graduate of Yale University working on a plantation in Georgia, quickly learned that Southern planters were in desperate need of a way to make the growing of cotton profitable. Whitney knew that if he could invent a machine that could separate the cotton from the seeds, he could hope to reap a handsome profit from it.

His invention, dubbed the cotton gin, could be hand-cranked; larger versions could be harnessed to a horse or driven by water power. "One man and a horse will do more than 50 men with the old machines," wrote Whitney to his father. After the invention of the cotton gin, the yield of raw cotton doubled each decade after 1800. Demand was fueled by other inventions of the Industrial Revolution, such as the machines to spin and weave cotton and the steamboat to transport it. By mid-century, the United States was growing three-quarters of the world's supply. However, like many inventors, Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse.

The most significant of these was the growth of slavery. At the same time that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it increased the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. Cotton became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. By 1860, approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.

For more than six decades, the National Archives has worked to preserve and provide access to the records of the American people -- records that not only open the door on our past but help provide a road map to our future.

John Carlin is archivist of the United States. Joseph Glidden's and Eli Whitney's patents are among the documents in the "American Originals" exhibit at the Los Angeles Central Library through Jan. 4.

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