Patents protect the invention of things but not works of art or trademarks, which have their own body of law. They give a limited monopoly for an inventor to produce or license their invention for a set amount of time. Throughout history, patent law has inspired and rewarded innovation but also stifled innovation when abused.


The first patents were issued in Vienna, which was its own state, in 1450 and protected various glassmaking techniques. Those patents lasted ten years. Viennese spread out and asked for similar protections for all manner of inventions.

Early patents, beyond the Viennese glass blowers, were a mess. They more often gave a state-sponsored monopoly based on patronage or family ties than merit. At one point, the British government issued a patent for salt.

Genuine inventors protested vigorously and, about 1624, King George I created the first modern patent laws. Patents issued to whoever presented a working invention, regardless of family background. The “Statute of Monopolies” explicitly endorsed patent protections. It also voided the prior bogus patents.

Modern Day

Patent wars predictably ensued that continue to this day. Thanks to the business and political genius of his new partner, Matthew Boulton, Watt used the new laws to patent and protect his condensing steam engine. He was the first to actively protect and litigate his patents. Chief engineer William Murdoch was originally hired to inspect suspected patent infringers but eventually became a key inventor in his own right.

After the revolution, the US adopted patent in the Constitution. However, patents were issued by the Secretary of State and the first person to hold that position, Thomas Jefferson was unenthusiastic.

Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, repeatedly asked for a patent. Jefferson ignored him despite that Jefferson’s own farm utilized the machine. Eventually, Jefferson realized his purposeful delays caused economic harm and brought the idea of standardized parts to Whitney.

Steamboat inventor John Fitch also asked for a patent and Jefferson stalled. By the time he issued a patent, to Fitch and three others, the protections were worthless. Fitch has a Fresca in the US Capitol celebrating his invention and nothing else.

Patent Abuse

Over time, patents have been abused. Fake inventors, political issues, or even outright thieves worked the patent system the same way a pickpocket works a crowded subway.

The system did little to protect genuine inventors or foster innovation. Patent trolls, “non-practicing entities” who patented every idea they could think of, proliferated. The US system became especially bad after the Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) defined an original invention as one not submitted to the PTO, regardless of how widespread it was in use. A revolving door where patent examiners become patent lawyers, prosecuting or defending the frivolous patents, made the situation worse.

As it has for centuries the patent wars continue, with genuine innovators battling copycats and intellectual property thieves. For the most part, the thieves usually win. However, with growing disgust at the system, there is eventual hope for change.


The steamboat opened trade routes within the US and Europe, but especially the early US. The cost of travel throughout the US dramatically decreased while safety and quality increased. The steamboat also allowed upstream river navigation, impossible without paddling, opening vast areas of land to development.

Early Efforts

De Jouffroy allegedly had a predecessor steamboat in 1776. He invented his while in a military prison where he was sent for being wild and unruly. De Jouffroy was denied a license to use his ship and died in poverty in the Hotel des Invalides from cholera.

In 1785, American John Fitch invented the steamboat and demonstrated his steam-powered boat to the Continental Congress. He saw the steamboat as a way to more safely navigate the early US via rivers, after being captured by Native Americans, who handed him to the British, who (nine months later) freed him. Fitch, along with three others, received a narrow patent from the newly created patent office because other innovators, including James Rumsey, had developed a similar type of boat.

Fitch operated a commercial boat service that eventually failed, and committed suicide in 1798. Part of the reason for his failure to commercialize the boat is tension with his investors. Depending upon the narrative, he either married his lead investors mistress, after she became pregnant from the investor, or impregnated his investor’s mistress. Either way, this caused a rift from which he never financially recovered.

William Symington launched a steamboat in Scotland in 1785, creating several iterations and variations for use as a pleasure boat, a canal boat, and a tugboat. He built and patented two entirely different engines, both low-pressure steam-based. Both worked but investors were not interested. His boats were a commercial failure and he abandoned the business, dying in debt.

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton was an aspiring artist, demonstrating enthusiasm not commensurate with his talent. An American visiting England, he transformed himself into a civil engineer, building canals. For this, he relied on his artistic skills, creating nice paintings to find financing and political support. He went to post-revolutionary France and built a working submarine.

Fulton met American Robert Livingston in France and they formed a partnership to create a steamboat business back in the US. Fulton worked on many small prototypes and eventually built a working model on the Seine. Livingston, a trade ambassador, working with American James Monroe, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon, making him especially politically influential on his return to the US.

Livingston lost interest in the boat. In 1805, Fulton changed allegiance from France to England, working with the English navy to build a submarine. His ship never worked but the English paid him £12,000 for the effort. More importantly, the English licensed Fulton the right to purchase a Boulton & Watt engine that, at the time, forbidden for export to the US due to the American Revolution.


Back in the US, in 1806, Fulton used the engine and perfected Fitch’s boat ー using a water-wheel propelled by an engine (the opposite of a mill propelled by a waterwheel) ー and created a successful steamboat service about a decade after Fitch’s death. Despite the waterwheel, Fulton is said to have invented nothing new besides a business model. Rather than relying on patents, Fulton relied primarily on exclusive waterway navigation rights secured by Livingston. Fulton’s first ship, the Clermont, sailed on Aug. 17, 1807.

Fulton became a shipping baron and went into countless history books, wrongfully, as the innovator of the steamboat. Henry Miller Shreve eventually busted Fulton’s river monopoly via litigation and introduced high-pressure steam engines. “Never,” wrote Fulton, “did a single encouraging remark, a bright hope or a warm good wish, cross my path,” Fulton said about his work to create a commercial steam-engine business (Evans, Harold. They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators.)