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.

Interchangeable Standardized Parts: the “American Manufacturing Method”

Standardized parts allow parts of a machine to be swapped out, enabling factories to manufacture parts without worrying about the larger machine. Interchangeable parts vastly lowered manufacturing costs.

Check out the video we created about interchangeable standardized parts:

Today, everything from cars to computers, software and even food, is interchangeable. We’re annoyed that a USB plug only works in one direction but the idea that such a plug works at all — that it fits into countless computers and makes enormous data stores accessible — is a big yawn.

Today, we take it for granted that parts can be replaced and that every part is the same. But, at the time, this was an enormous breakthrough.

Le Blanc

Messrs. Le Blanc is a Frenchman gunsmith who devised a musket with interchangeable parts and the idea in general. Gaspard Cotty describes the innovation in a multi-page footnote in his 1806 book, Memoire sur la Fabrication des armes portatives de guerre.

On a table is place a collection of random parts to create about 50 muskets. An observer picks random pieces then fits them together into a fully functioning musket. Muskets were individually handcrafted, at enormous cost, before Le Blanc’s innovation.

Interchangeable parts vastly lowering the cost of maintaining an army.

Then US Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson witnessed Le Blanc’s demonstration and invited him to bring it to the US. Le Blanc declined, wishing to remain in France. France, concerned about job loss, declined to embrace Le Blanc’s method.

There is some speculation that the idea of standardized parts predates Le Blanc, though Cotty’s 1806 book — written in a pre-Napoleanic french dialect — shows that to be unlikely.

Specifically, Cotty notes that Le Blanc:

  • Is the first to use “hardened steel” (a process apparently in use for some time in the steel industry) to produce the lock of a firearm; Le Blanc created this technique in 1777.
  • Highlights the pros and cons of interchangeable standardized parts for muskets.
  • Specifically details Le Blank presenting 50 or 60 rifles to Mr. de Gribeauval, “inspecteur general de l’artillerie,” the inspector general of the French artillery, in 1789 before the French Revolution.
  • Le Blanc then had his men take the rifles apart, mix up the parts, and put them back together. However, there were enough defects that de Gribeauval decided to rely on “old” (their word) manufacturing methods.
  • de Gribeauval was also concerned with complaints from soldiers about the standardized parts muskets and with the effect on jobs.

There was some speculation that Jefferson’s recounting of the French demonstration was an urban legend. Jefferson mentions the demonstration in a 1789 letter to Henry Knox but there is no other mention despite the enormity of the innovation. However, Cotty’s account makes the idea that Jefferson fabricated the idea to gain traction extremely unlikely.

Eli Whitney

Jefferson eventually returned to the US and brought the idea of standardized parts to Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. Jefferson, in his earlier role as Secretary of State, failed to process Whitney’s cotton gin patent in a timely manner. In all fairness, Jefferson openly did not like patents and was slow to process virtually all patent applications, not just Whitney’s. For example, he eventually granted four separate people a shared patent for the steamboat despite that two of the applicants didn’t have working boats. Jefferson was openly hostile to patents.

Due in part to the lack of patent protection knockoff cotton gin’s thrived and Whitney made no profit. Feeling a sense of guilt, Jefferson brought Whitney the idea for a musket based on interchangeable parts.

Jefferson worked with Whitney to repeat the same demonstration as Le Blanc, mixing up a bunch of parts then assembling a musket. However, Whitney’s parts all fit together perfectly, probably because historians agree they cheated and marked parts Whitney knew were pre-fitted.

Whitney, with his well-known name and Jefferson’s help, secured a contract to build an interchangeable part musket. His factory never quite worked — he could not build the parts to tight enough tolerances — but his children, who took over the factory, eventually succeeded.

Despite that Le Blanc of France created the concept, interchangeable standardized parts became known as the American Manufacturing Method.


Later, Sam Colt thrived on interchangeable parts. Ford was also an interchangeable parts fanatic, to the point he insisted that shipping crates use the same size planks for reusability.

Cotton Gin

Whitney’s innovation vastly lowered the price of cotton. Before Whitney’s cotton gin, producing cotton was economically inefficient because of the enormous cost to separate cotton from seeds. After the innovation, cotton became a profitable crop.


Coming of age during the Revolutionary War, Whitney made a nail company, at the age of 15. Later, he made hatpins. In May 1789, at age of 23 (unusually old for the time), Whitney attended to Yale, graduating in 1792. Being neither wealthy nor well-connected Whitney couldn’t find work and another Yale student, Phineas Miller, found him a job as a tutor in South Carolina. During his journey, he met Catharine Greene, widowed wife of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Green. All revolutionary leaders knew and respected General Green.

While living with Greene, Whitney invented the cotton gin to automatically separate cotton fibers from seed. Before the cotton gin, the separation process was labor intensive. Cotton was not economically viable crop, even using slave labor.

Patent Fail

Farmers ignored Whitney’s patents and copied his cotton gin despite patent protection. The cotton gin vastly reduced the price of cotton which increased the value of slaves in the southern US on cotton plantations. Before the cotton gin, slavery was trending towards being economically unviable and the number of slaves was dwindling because farmers did not have enough work to justify owning slaves. After the cotton gin, slavery vastly increased.

Besides patent fail, the gin failed due to Whitney’s business model. Rather than sell gins or licenses, Whitney created central factories and demanded one-third of the cotton cleaned, a price set by his law school fiend Miller (note a pattern where lawyers think the law can protect against the market). Instead of paying, farmers made knockoffs and risked lawsuits rather than paying the steep price.

Whitney’s lawsuits (over 60 at one point) went nowhere. “I had great difficulty to prove that the machine had been used in Georgia and at the same moment there were three separate sets of this machinery in motion within fifty yards of the building in which the court sat and all so near that the rattling was distinctly heard on the steps of the courthouse,” Whitney wrote to Fulton. (Evans, Harold. They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators).

By 1797, Whitney and Greene were effectively bankrupt. Whitney did collect some money in 1807 but by then was off to his standardized parts project.