Tag Archives: Patents
… your letter of the 9th. announced of a method of curing Yellow fever … in the distribution of the powers of government however, made by our general & state constitutions, no other encoragement for useful discoveries has been confided to the general [national] government but that of securing to their authors the exclusive use of them [a patent] for a term of years. all further reward is within the competence of the state-governments alone … those which have suffered under this affliction cannot fail to remunerate with liberality any real discovery for remedying it in future.
Thomas Jefferson to Antonio Garcia Herreros, August 18, 1805
In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about diseases that ravaged the nation in Thomas Jefferson’s time.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know who can and cannot help.
Herreros solicited the President for federal support for his “cure” for yellow fever. Jefferson acknowledged that any cure would be of great value. He explained that the U.S. Constitution gave the national government no authority to promote it beyond the issuance of a patent. Herreros must look to state governments for support.
The President affirmed liberal compensation should be owing anyone with a “real discovery” for curing the fever. Obviously, Herreros possessed no such cure.
Mr. Jefferson offers a real cure for boring meetings.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
should you propose to secure to yourself by a patent the benefit of the ideas contained in your letter, I will lodge it in the patent office of the Secretary of state: or should you prefer a communication of it to the world, I would transmit it to the Philosophical society at Philadelphia. either the one or the other shall be done as you shall direct.
To Thomas McLean, June 9, 1802
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some inventor leaders are motivated by service, not profit.
McLean had written a detailed, complicated letter about theoretical improvements for mills that grind grain. He asked the President’s opinion of his theory and for patent help that would allow him to develop a prototype. Jefferson expressed his great interest but declined to study it. It fell into the realm of “philosophical speculations.” His duties as President left him no time to pursue such things, no matter how much he enjoyed them.
He gave McLean a choice. He would either submit McLean’s theory to the patent office for its protection or offer his idea to the world for free, through the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. (Jefferson was president of the APS, too.)
Jefferson was an inventor who never patented any of his creations. He thought the inspiration for his inventions was in the atmosphere, just as easily retrieved by someone else as by him. Thus, he sought no proprietary control, but offered his ideas to the public. He compared his choice to lighting another’s candle from his own. Someone else now had light, and his own was not diminished.
Jefferson’s decades-long precarious financial position might have been improved had he chosen to patent and profit from his inventions.