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Kimberly Powell

Using Patents to Enrich Your Family History

By February 20, 2013

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On 16 September 1851, Ebenezer Weeman received U.S. Patent D0000413 for a "metallic gate," a design that a few years later was used to create the ornate gate that graces the Summer Family Cemetery in Newberry County, South Carolina.1 Illinois farmer Joseph Glidden applied to the patent office on 27 October 1873 with a design for a clever new type of barbed fencing wire, an invention that would forever shape the American West. Many patent owners are instantly recognizable by name, such as Ferdinand Graf Zeppelin (U.S. Patent 621195 for a navigable balloon) and Clarence Birdseye (famous for several patents, including U.S. Patent 1,773,079, which marked the beginning of today's frozen food industry). My son also wouldn't forgive me if I neglected to mention the 1902 U.S. Patent 1,119,732 for the Tesla Coil, invented by his favorite scientist, Nikola Tesla, owner of at least 278 patents issued in 26 countries.2 And, of course, many genealogists will recognize the name Robert Russell, who in 1918 patented the Soundex system.

But have you ever heard of New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, awarded U.S. patent 1,115,674 on 3 November 1914 for the brassiere? Or DuPont chemist, Wallace Hume Carothers, who filed for U.S. patent 2,071,250 on 3 July 1931 for his invention titled "Linear Condensation Polymers," aka nylon? Or how about Philadelphia housewife Nancy M. Johnson, who in 1843 patented the first hand-cranked ice cream churn?

A lot of everyday people filed for patents, with patent offices around the world. Even if you don't have an inventor in your own family tree, the designs of others were a part of their daily lives--from the gate that adorns a family cemetery, to the tractor that your ancestor used to plow his fields, or the rifle that he carried during his military service. Search for your family names and locations, as well as for the items which most defined your ancestor's life. Patents are a rich source of information for adding color to your family history. You can search patents online through sites such as Google Patent Search, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or the European Patent Office.


  1. Kimberly Powell, "Digging into the Details," About.com, posted 28 January 2008.
  2. Snežana Šarboh, "Nikola Tesla's Patents," Sixth International Symposium Nikola Tesla, 18-20 October 2006, p. 6; archived from the original on 14 Aug 2007, Wayback Machine (http://web.archive.org : accessed 20 March 2012).
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