Today, we think about ashes and gold. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The U.S. Patent Office has
issued five million patents since it opened in
1790. Those patents include a lot of junk, of
course. People have many lame reasons for filing
patents. Some just want to swell their resumes.
Others figure that, if they file twenty patents,
maybe one will turn a profit.
So patents accumulate. A whole lot of chaff
surrounds the real nuggets of accomplishment. So
what about the first American patent? We might
expect to find chaff there, but we don't.
We issued three patents in 1790. Samuel Hopkins
received the first one on July 31st. Both George
Washington and Thomas Jefferson signed it. Hopkins
had created a new process for making potash.
We derive the word potassium from potash. Potash is
an impure form of potassium carbonate. We use it to
make soap, glass, fertilizers, and gunpowder. It's
a very important substance. It was our first
During the mid-1700s potash-making became an
American cottage industry. We used the burned-out
ashes from wood fires. We leeched them in big iron
kettles. Then we boiled the liquid and created a
For a while, our forest-rich land supplied not only
our own needs, but England's as well. But now we'd
cleared our land. We could hardly keep burning
trees just to get at their ashes.
Hopkins used a furnace to reburn ashes. His process
greatly improved the yield of potash as well as its
purity. For the next 70 years America was the
world's main potash producer.
Finally, in the 1860s, German chemists showed us
how to mine potassium salts from dry alkalai lake
beds. The wood-based potash industry ended soon
We don't get the potassium salts we need from wood
anymore. But for a long time, Hopkins had put us at
the center of a great chemical process industry. So
our first patent was one of the great American
patents after all.
What could be more fitting! Our first patent turned
ashes into gold. The creative process itself is
like that. We pass through ashes to reach gold. We
begin with frustration and defeat. Then we refine
it. That's how America came out of her wilderness.
And it's how you and I come out of ours -- every
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds