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Early American Patents 

The Weird Meets the Wonderful in Early American Patents

By John Masson
Sept. 17, 2012

Michigan Law students packed a classroom during lunch last week to hear Villanova Law professor Michael Risch talk about his paper on "America's First Patents."

The standing-room-only presentation, co-sponsored by The Federalist Society and the Intellectual Property Students Association, also was attended by noted Michigan Law IP expert Prof. Rebecca Eisenberg.

Risch's paper, recently published in the Florida Law Review, is available online.

The central point: There's not a lot of documentation surrounding early patents, with one exception—the patents themselves.

Consider the example Risch presented of a paddle-wheel ship powered by horses walking on a sort of glorified gerbil wheel.

"You think that this is an absurd patent," Risch said. "Well, guess what—they sued someone for infringement! Somebody else was doing this!"

Things have changed over the years in the practice of patent law, Risch noted. Some issues that consume patent law experts today raised nary an eyebrow back in the 19th century, for example. Furthermore, he said, it's important for modern students of patent law to remember that, to those who live in the same world as the invention, hindsight makes the most mind-exploding innovation seem obvious.

An example: a patented, automatic bell—operated by the impact of the cobblestones in city streets—that could be placed on a fire engine to warn people out of the way of a fire wagon. Before, Risch said, the fire company had to just manually ring a bell, "or yell 'Get out of the way!' "

Much more difficult, he said, is imagining a time before some seemingly miraculous invention ever came into existence. After all, he said, "everything is obvious in the future."

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