When the United States Patent Office celebrated its one hundredth birthday, a bust of Thomas Jefferson was dedicated recognizing him as one of the fathers of that institution. Probably no more eminent or more reluctant person held the post as examiner of American patents. As Secretary of State, Jefferson also inherited the Patent Office, a governmental function which he was originally opposed to philosophically. But, he probably did more to encourage the flourishing of American invention through his direction of the patent office than any other American in history. The patent system he created remains the basis for the patent system of today. Much of the present structure, rules, and guidelines, were established by him.
Jefferson's views on patents should not surprise those who are aware of his views about democracy and equality. He opposed patents strongly because he considered it an unfair monopoly. He would later become more in their favor when he discovered the power they had to encourage invention. For Jefferson the purpose of the patent office was to promulgate invention, not protect them. These two reasons are why he formulated a policy for patents that encouraged invention but maintained restrictions on what could be patented. Thus he was able to be true to his beliefs and perform the duties foisted upon him by the Patent Act of 1790.
The number of applications during the two years of Jefferson's term was 114 and he probably examined each one. About half of those who petitioned for patents received them because of Jefferson's strict rules. Only sixty-seven patents were granted during his tenure, among them to Eli Whitney for the cotton gin.
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