Great-Great-Grandmothers of Invention

By Nick D'Alto Premium

My friend Dan is not very handy, but his relatives always claimed there’d been a “great tinkerer” in his past. Imagine my friend’s surprise when he unearthed US patent number 1,724,221, issued to his forebear, Dante Raso — who, it turns out, invented the pilot light used in gas stoves.

Is this kind of inventive history waiting to be discovered in your family tree? Don’t worry — you needn’t be related to Edison or the Wright brothers to find a family inventor. Since 1790, millions of otherwise ordinary people have registered their tools and gadgets, submitted their songs and stories, or otherwise used the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) <> to document their creative efforts.

Among the nation’s oldest federal record bureaus and established “to assist such persons as invent or discover any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter,” USPTO repositories today hold millions of documents filled with priceless genealogical details. If most records chronicle peoples’ lives, these preserve their hopes and dreams — their visions for the future.

Inventing a nation

“There is not a farmhand here who lacks some scheme for improving a machine,” one English traveler noted while touring early America. Nineteenth-century magazines encouraged inventiveness; some even advertised patenting services. Aspiring Edisons often drew their ideas from everyday life, fired by that flash of inspiration about how to do something better.

They hailed from everywhere, from the teeming cities to the still-wild territories. New immigrants such as Gustav A, Weiskopf (patent 881,837, Aeroplane) registered their ideas even before completing citizenship; others sent applications ahead from the old country. The worst life predicament couldn’t stop true innovation: Born into slavery, Granville Woods’ Improvements for Induction Telegraph Systems (patent 373,915) made him “the black Edison.”

Ingenuity wasn’t just for men. Mary Nolan probably first entertained her own children with patent 186,604 (Building Blocks). Anna Connelly’s descendants might still use her 1887 brainstorm: the fire escape. In all, the visions of America’s 6 million-plus innovators have ranged from the eminently practical (patent 157,124 for barbed-wire fences) to the patently absurd (number 730,918, Eye Protector for Chickens). But “if Italians paint and Greeks sculpt,” went one old saying, “then Americans invent.” Of course, the average patent didn’t make a fortune for its inventor.

Did your kin financially back someone else’s new device? His or her name will likely be listed in a patent, too. Even if your ancestor didn’t invent it or back it, wouldn’t you love to learn the “inside story” behind the victrola that’s been passed down through your family for so many years, or maybe how your great-granddad’s tools actually work? Now you can, and you can get a rare glimpse at the devices — from buggies to bottle-openers — that your ancestors used.

Add up the millions of copyrights and trademarks on record, however, and the chances become overwhelming that you’re somehow related to a documented innovator. So are you ready to rediscover your Victorian ancestor’s Improved Blacksmith’s Anvil from 1871? Or your great-great-aunt’s book of poems? Such priceless finds may be waiting for you, along with other vital clues that can illuminate your ancestors’ lives.

Devising a research strategy

So how do you identify an innovator from your past? As my friend Dan learned, family lore can help you begin: For an ancestor remembered as creative or handy (or even crazy!), substitute inventive. Though patentees have run the gamut, search especially for relatives employed in skilled trades, such as mechanics, coopers, carpenters and wheel-wrights. Family businesses, from canneries to lumber mills, created (and used) countless innovations. A relative who worked for someone else might have been required to assign his patent to an employer, but these records still exist — and the patent will include his name. Were your ancestors farmers? Innumerable farming implements were invented by people who needed them.

Additional evidence can include any dusty part or machine inexplicably kept in the family for generations — a possible inventive connection. The real clincher would be anything in the family legacy, from a radio label to a chunk of cast iron, that carries a six-or seven-digit number stamped on it. Sometimes accompanied by PAT and/or a date, that’s a patent number.

If you have a patent number, your ancestor’s genius is just a mouse click away. The US Patent and Trademark Office’s Web site replaces hours of library research. Visit <> and select Quick Search under Issued Patents. Type the patent number into Field 1 and select Patent Number from the corresponding pull-down menu. Under Select Years, highlight “1790 to 1975 PN and CCL only.” (PN and CCL refer to Patent Number and Current Classification — unfortunately, this database isn’t searchable by an individual’s name prior to 1976.) Your ancestor’s great idea — even if it predates the Civil War — flashes instantly across your computer screen. Every word describing the invention is there. The original drawings, illustrated in the marvelous style of the past, are also yours to enjoy. Plus, the entire document is printable.

To see the official abstract describing your ancestor’s invention, take your patent number to the Official Gazette of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, published since January 1872 and available in print and microfilm at Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLs) <‾. This is a network of more than 80 libraries throughout the United States that hold USPTO materials. Some local or university libraries also hold partial USPTO collections on CD-ROM — it’s worth a call to a library near you.

In the Official Gazette, you may find your ancestor’s abstract alongside one for the telegraph, pneumatic tires or some other great innovation. For parents issued between 1837, and 1871, consult the Patent Office Annual Reports to Congress, available in print.

Recognizing genius

Even if all you have so far is a suspicion that Great-great-uncle Clevis might have invented something, you could turn that speculation into gold at a PTDL. Your ancestor’s full name plus a guess of the years he or she might have applied for a patent is all you need. Look for your ancestor in that year’s Index of Patents Issued from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, Part I: Patentee/Assignee Index, an annual alphabetical list of inventors and their patents that’s available on micro-fiche. Once you find a parent number, head to the Official Gazette.

Even if your evidence is merely a date (for example, you found “Pat: Aug 14 1883” Stamped 011 a thingamajig that an unknown ancestor either owned or invented), don’t despair. Consult a patent chronology, which lists years and the range of patent numbers issued during each year (try <>). Find your year and the corresponding patent numbers, and then go to the official Gazette and look for a relative’s name in abstracts for the patent numbers in question.

If all you know is that your kin dreamed up a variation of a product, such as a clothes-pin or steam boiler, go to your PTDL and use the Index to the U.S. Patent Classification (also available online at <>) or the U.S. Manual of Classification, which categorize inventions by description and Patent Office class number. These publications are highly technical, so ask for the librarian’s help.

Professional patent-search assistance, though usually geared toward present-day inventors, is available (see the Toolkit, opposite page). But remember that many products weren’t (or couldn’t be) patented. It you find evidence that an ancestor’s invention wasn’t patented, an antiques dealer or appraiser specializing in period mechanical devices can help you learn more about the device or locate one.

Perusing a patent

Of course, the first thrill of finding an ancestor’s invention is discovering that a great-great-uncle’s Improved Corn Planting Drill made him a contemporary of Marconi, Bell and other great innovators. Next, there’s the excitement of learning how your ancestor’s “better mousetrap” actually worked. This may take some careful reading, since patents are written in a particular language. The last section of the patent, usually called the Claims or Letters Patent, was the most important; it describes the novel features of your ancestor’s idea that were recognized by the patent office. No one else could use these without the patent holder’s consent.

The patent drawings — possibly sketched by your ancestor, but often cleaned up by a paid draftsman — will help you imagine how your kin’s brainchild actually would have looked. They show how the pieces would fit together it the device were constructed (though not every patented device was actually built). Even more important than the words or pictures, however, is the rare chance to see how your ancestor thought, as you examine the great idea that he or she wanted to share with the future — the world you live in today.

USPTO documents can yield still more biographical treasures. Most applications indicate the applicant’s citizenship, as well as the state and county of residence at the filing date (an excellent check for your records). The patent’s title block also may list the names (with addresses!) of any co-inventors — perhaps heretofore unknown family friends, business partners or relatives who can form another thread in your genealogical research. Even better, individuals or firms whom your ancestor “cut in” on the patent also may appear, offering powerful evidence that the innovation may have reached manufacture. What an exciting family story to discover!

Beneath the patent’s drawings, you should find the name of the law firm that helped your ancestor prepare his application — a potential source of other legal documents. At the end of the patent, locate the lines marked “Witnesses.” You may be reading the names of your great-grandfather’s most trusted friends.

During much of the 18th and 19th centuries, many patent applicants were required to submit a representational model of their inventions to the patent office. Ranging from crude, hand-carved mockups to exquisite working prototypes, these marvelous miniatures are enchanting records of American ingenuity. Although many were lost over the years to fire, neglect and a sell-off during the Great Depression, about half of these models survive today (see the Toolkit, right).

Drawing up the past

Other bright ideas for enjoying this link to your past should include securing a presentation patent — a letter-quality copy of your ancestor’s patent — for $25 from the USPTO. Call (800) 972-6382 for ordering information, or go to <> and, under the Get menu, click Copy of a Patent. A variety of commercial services will prepare a framed patent for you. Plan a visit to the USPTO search room in Crystal City, Va., to see your ancestor’s original application, along with the drawing and signatures (presidents including Thomas Jefferson endorsed the earliesr patents).

If you believe your ancestor’s invention was sold, a good antiques dealer might be able to locate the product for you, especially once you have the patent information. Also remember that new inventions often received coverage in local newspapers, as well as in technical journals of the period, such as Scientific American.

You might even consider locating a prototype maker (try the Thomas Register <> directory of manufacturers) who can build a model of your seventh cousin’s Foot-Actuated Butter Churn for you. Even better, find a willing computer maven, and turn your ancestor’s Fence Cutting & Finishing Jig of 1884 into a 3-D computer model with parts that move. Great-great-granddad would have loved it.

Most important, be inventive with your new genealogical find. After all, that trait runs in your family.

From the April 2004 Family Tree Magazine