Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 565:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 565.

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 industrial chemical.

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 potash distillate.

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 afterward.

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 day.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Paynter, H.M., The First U.S. Patent. American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Fall 1990, pp. 18-22.

It's a little off the point, but maybe you've read the book: Bly, R., Iron John: A Book About Men. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., Inc., 1990. Bly insists on a theme I've alluded to. It's the idea that to achieve the "gold" of our inner kingship -- to gain real self possession -- we have to pass through despair. He calls that our "Time of Ashes."

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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