When I interpret Patent History on a Cody Firearms Museum tour, I invariably see everyone's eyes glaze over from impending boredom. But maintaining interest is all in the packaging, and patent history can be more dramatic than most initially think. After all, nothing brings the claws out of inventors and manufacturers quite like competing over the exclusive right to produce the 'next big thing.'
Rollin White Patent, PN126491,1855
The desire for exclusivity in ingenuity is not new. In one form or another, the principle always has been around. However, the first forms of patents were not issued until the 14th and 15th centuries in England and Italy. These early patents paved the way for the process to be adopted around the world. It was America, however, that first granted inventors the individual right to profit from their designs in 1790.
But this new country was far from perfecting the concept. The first official Patent Office, formed in 1802, was plagued with corruption. There were no numbering systems and the deciding criteria for patents were inconsistent. In fact, many American inventors received European patents until Congress standardized the process in 1836.
After 1836, there was a boom in firearms invention. Patents, now issued by number, became a symbol for inventive success and failure. It also revealed the competitive nature in business. Private and corporate-hired engineers developed technologies in the hopes they would result in mass manufacture. Historically, however, only a select few would achieve that dream.
One Man's Trash Is another Man's Treasure
Prototype 1860 Patent, Benjamin Tyler Henry
The above title is melodramatic but indicative of many patents. Some inventions, no matter how ingenious, only found success through certain people. For example, the lever action, made iconic by Winchester, was actually invented by Smith & Wesson. On February 14, 1854, the U.S Patent Office redefined romance by giving Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson a patent for a lever action pistol. In hindsight, a bouquet of flowers may have better expenditure for Valentine's Day as the patent proved to be a financial burden on the company. A year later, they sold the rights to a shirt manufacturer named Oliver Winchester. Under Winchester, the original patent was improved by Benjamin Tyler Henry, who in 1860 patented an improved lever action equipped to fire metallic cartridges.
What Were They Thinking?
While some unsuccessful designs are made prosperous through different ownership, other inventions are so unorthodox that historians question what these engineers were thinking.
Triplett & Scott Carbine, Production Model
Josselyn Chain Revolver Patent, PN52248, 1866
Issuing a patent does not guarantee success. In some cases, the prototype may require modification. In this instance, the fundamental invention remains the same, while secondary elements are altered to create a marketable product. The Triplett & Scott Repeating Carbine is a prime example. On December 6, 1864, Louis Triplett was issued a patent for a firearm with a tubular metal magazine that simultaneously served as a stock. The metal stock however was not practical for consumer use. Production models, therefore, used a wooden stock with an inserted seven-round magazine.
While adjustments can orchestrate success, some inventions are so outlandish they never see production. On January 23, 1866 Henry S. Josselyn was issued a patent for his Chain Revolver. It fired twenty-rounds via a flexible rotating chain. Thanks to obvious design flaws, the gun was never actually produced; the prototype is the only example in existence.
A Lesson in Sharing
Examining historic patent prototypes may force you to question the choices of inventors, but in many cases, these peculiar designs emerge to avoid patent infringement.
A patent grants an inventor the exclusive right to his or her invention. As a result, there is a long history of litigation that intersects patent history. Trying to preserve the uniqueness of your product is a professional necessity. In many cases suing for patent infringement is warranted. But in the 19th century, there were professional rivalries and patent abuses that pushed the limits of perceived acceptability.
Rollin White Pocket Revolver (made for Smith & Wesson during the Civil War)
Samuel Colt was certainly known for lawsuits against companies like B&B.M. Darling, but another contemporary, Rollin White, was infamous for controversial patent litigation. In 1855, White received a patent for the first bored-through cylinder in America. White's invention facilitated the loading of metallic cartridges in the rear of a cylinder. Smith & Wesson, who worked with White and paid him a royalty for the patent, cornered the revolver market at the onset of the Civil War.
White developed a reputation for suing any company who came close to his design. The court often found in his favor. Demand was so high during the War, however, that they would allow these companies to continue production as long as they paid him a royalty.
These companies were not the only ones to pay a price. When White's patent expired, he petitioned Congress for an extension, citing he did not receive appropriate compensation. He claimed that Smith & Wesson profited more from his design and the majority of his money was spent on lawsuits. Congress was sympathetic and granted him a hearing. President Grant ultimately vetoed his request because others, including the Chief of Ordnance, viewed those lawsuits with little empathy, claiming constant litigation during a time of war was an "inconvenience and an embarrassment" to the Union.
Historically, patents bring out the best and worst of people's competitive natures. More often than not, competition fuels brilliant technological advancements. But it doesn't hurt that they inadvertently provide the foundation for entertaining anecdotes along the way.
-- Ashley Hlebinsky
Ashley Hiebinsky is Assistant Curator, Cody Firearms Museum
The Cody Firearms Museum currently houses an exhibition of Patent Firearms, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center.
Images Courtesy of Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody Wyoming. Gift of Olin Corporation Winchester Arms Collection, 1988.8.415 & 1988.8.3232.