Mistaken identity: First patent holder from Philly, not PittsfordAnthony Edwards / Staff Photo
A plaque on the Pittsford town green honoring Samuel Hopkins as the nation’s first patent holder will be taken down.
PITTSFORD — Samuel Hopkins of Pittsford has long been credited with being awarded the first U.S. patent in 1790 for inventing a new process for making potash. Samuel Hopkins did in fact receive the first patent for potash — but it was the wrong Samuel Hopkins.
The first patent holder was Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation has concluded.
To rectify the case of mistaken identity, the state will remove the historic marker that has occupied a prominent place on the town green since 1956.
Town Manager John Haverstock shared the news with the Select Board on Wednesday night, which prompted board Chairman Allen Hitchcock to quip that the town “should keep it as an historical record of fraud.”
Haverstock, however, wouldn’t go that far, calling it more “an innocent mistake.”
“The (Pittsford) Historical Society actually has reviewed that literature from the state historian,” Haverstock said. “They reluctantly agree that that’s probably correct and they seem agreeable to taking down that marker.”
With no objection, the board approved a motion to have the state remove the marker.
John Dumville of the state Division for Historic Preservation said Thursday the state first became aware that the Pittsford Hopkins might not be the nation’s first patent holder some 15 years or so ago.
Over the years the state has received letters from individuals and publications and later emails calling into question the state’s claim that Hopkins was the first patent holder.
“We’ve got enough emails and letters about the incorrect history that I guess we better take the bull by the horns and have it removed,” said Dumville, the historic sites operations chief.
He said the state will put a new marker in its place to honor a historic event or individual in the town’s history. He said the Pittsford Historical Society can keep the old marker honoring Samuel Hopkins.
“It will be a good thing for them to use as how history is interpreted and how sometimes it is misinterpreted,” he said.
Anne Pelkey, curator of the historical society, said they’ve been “very well aware” of the controversy for some time and that there is “enough documentation to back up the fact he (Hopkins) was not from Pittsford.”
“We’re OK with that,” Pelkey said, referring to the state taking down the marker. “We’ve been asked to come up with a replacement.”
John Maxey, a Philadelphia lawyer and part-time historian, has been at the forefront of efforts to clear up what he says is a case of mistaken identity. His research led him to the Philadelphia Hopkins as the first patent holder.
According to an article by Lisa Shuchman in the latest edition of the online publication Corporate Counsel, Maxey found Hopkins listed in the local census of the time as an inventor and apprentice to a potash maker. The original patent, which is in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society, was issued to Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia on July 31, 1790.
Potash, considered the first industrial chemical, was used in the manufacture of soap, gun powder, glass, and woolen cloth.
How the two Hopkinses got mixed up isn’t entirely clear.
One story goes that Hopkins, who was born in Maryland, left Philadelphia and bought a farm in Pittsford, where he invented his potash process.
Another story that has made the rounds, again according to Corporate Counsel, is that the Pittsford Hopkins, who was born in Amenia, N.Y., traveled from Pittsford to Philadelphia to apply for a patent since Vermont wasn’t yet a state.
The Corporate Counsel article traces the Hopkins legend to the 1930s when “a genealogist doing research in Vermont wrote that the first patent holder was in fact Pittsford’s Samuel Hopkins.”
The story took off from there and was never challenged until 1998 when Maxey started his research and concluded the Vermont Hopkins was the wrong man.
When Maxey was informed that Pittsford would take down the marker honoring Hopkins, he wrote in an email that he understood why it took the town so long to come to grips with the facts.
“I feel somewhat sad about the removal of the historical marker on the Pittsford village green, for its continued presence was a tribute to local pride and stubborn Vermont resistance — in the face of conclusive evidence I provided in two articles published in 1998 that the two Pittsfords, in Vermont and New York, had honored the wrong Samuel Hopkins as holder of the first US patent.
Pittsford, N.Y., where the wrong Hopkins was buried, erected a plaque to him as well but removed it years ago, Maxey said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy in his work on patent legislation in the Senate has referred to Vermont as home of the first U.S. patent. When informed Thursday of the state’s decision to take down the marker, Leahy’s office referred to a 2011 release from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The agency continues to credit Samuel Hopkins of Pittsford as the first patent holder, noting that “Hopkins was born in Vermont, but was living in Philadelphia, Pa., when the patent was granted.”
But Maxey is quoted in the Corporate Counsel article as saying the Patent Office isn’t credible on this issue. “It’s been pitching the wrong Samuel Hopkins for years,” he said.
Dumville of the state Division for Historic Preservation said there isn’t any evidence the Pittsford Hopkins invented anything.
There are 250 historic markers throughout the state and Dumville said this is the first time the state has had to remove one.
He also said the state over the years has tightened up its criteria for placing historic markers.
“We don’t want another Samuel Hopkins,” he said.
Dumville said each marker costs the state $1,700. He said the Department of State Buildings and General Services is tasked with taking down the Hopkins marker.
While the Hopkins marker in Vermont will come down, Philadelphia in 2002 honored its Hopkins with a marker of its own at the corner of 2nd and Arch streets.
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