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 Peter Takes on History 

July 8, 1873

The First Woman US Patent Examiner

On July 8, 1873, the US Patent Office hired its first female patent examiner; Miss Anna Nichols. Miss Anna Nichols, not Anna Nichol Smith, the far more common Google search that made it very difficult to research Anna Nichols. You’ll remember Anna Nicole Smith is the 26 year old Playboy bunny who married an 89 year old billionaire in 1994 … in some ways the exact opposite of Anna Nichols.

No, Anna Nichols, was a woman of science who passed a rigorous examination to qualify for the position of patent examiner. Only six of 45 applicants passed the test and Miss Anna Nichols was the only woman.

She joined a staff of 340 male examiners and her hiring was remarkable enough to be mentioned in Scientific American magazine though they noted, “it is all indoor work, mostly of a fixed clerical nature, for which petticoats are admirably adapted.” Still, hiring Anna Nichols was a conscious act of enlightenment that the patent office announced would “encourage women to submit inventions that they might have feared would be viewed with less sympathy by male examiners.” In fact, only 77 U.S. patents were credited to women from 1790 to 1860 while in 1860 alone nearly 5000 patents were granted to men.

Patents nurture invention, and invention is critical to economic growth. The founding fathers included a patent and copyright clause in the US Constitution. Abraham Lincoln said, “The Patent System add(s) the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” I should note that Lincoln was kinda talking about himself. He remains the only US president to hold a patent having patented a system of balloons for lifting ships off sandbars.

Patents have shaped our economy and even our country. Hollywood is Hollywood because the young movie industry moved west to escape Thomas Edison whose patents put a lock on every aspect of filmmaking. It also helped that California’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was renowned for being unsympathetic to patent claims.

Patents can be a measure of success. Here’s a list, in order, of the US companies that hold the most patents; IBM leads, followed by Canon, Microsoft, Intel, Apple, Ford, Amazon. You can see patents are worth money and that’s why between 5 and 6,000 US patent cases are filed every year. This is big business, and that’s why in 2007 Halliburton tried to patent patenting. On the other end of the spectrum are the more noble. For the sake of humanity Jonas Salk chose not to patent his polio vaccine, passing up an estimated $7 billion in royalties. Or one of the first instances, in the mid-1800s France released an important photography patent as “a gift to the citizens of the world” ... except the English. They had to pay. After all, the French and British have gone to war 23 times since the Norman Conquest … not counting Brexit.

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