Milestone Documents in the National Archives

Contents:

Incandescent Lamp Patent


Click the image to view a larger version

In the United States, as in other industrial countries, a nation of farmers was converted to an urban society through technological innovations

that progressively reshaped where and how Americans lived. One factor that encouraged the steady flow of inventions in this country was the federal patent system. Congress established the first patent board in 1790, implementing a provision of the Constitution that the "exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries" should be secured "for limited Times to Authors and Inventors." The patent for Thomas A. Edison’s practical incandescent lamp represents the wide-ranging American ingenuity that is documented in patent records in the National Archives.

The list of patents granted to now-famous inventors during the early years can barely convey their lasting significance: Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, 1794: Samuel Colt’s revolving handgun, 1836; Charles Goodyear’s rubber process, 1844; William Kelly’s process for making steel, 1851; and Elisha Otis’s elevator, 1861. These inventions and others would combine with one another to change the pace and pattern of industrial and agricultural growth and, eventually, the style of American life.

Inventors often made revolutionary discoveries without recognizing their importance. Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone in 1876 as "Improvements in Telegraphy." Although he realized that the new device carried human voices as well as telegraph signals, he did not anticipate the major way in which it would be used. Significant applications of an invention often appeared only over a long period of time and were then buttressed by supporting devices, each carrying its own federal patent.

The federal patent system was intended to guarantee inventors the profit from the initial development of their creation. The expense involved in exploiting new machines and processes, coupled with the cost of maintaining exclusivity over existing patents, often encouraged the formation of huge corporations that dominated their field. Eventually a series of antitrust laws challenged these corporate monopolies.

If the use of new inventions was difficult to anticipate, equally hard to foresee were the massive consequences on the environment and on what Americans came to call the "quality of life." One invention spawned another, creating new industries based upon seemingly unlimited natural resources. The mass-produced fruits of American inventiveness filled the marketplace, converting masses of citizens into consumers. Vast land areas became covered with shelter, transportation networks, industry, and mining operations. As the wealth of the raw land was converted into consumable abundance, the inheritance of future generations was often sacrificed, and raw materials began to disappear from their ancient depositories. The same industries that supported a high standard of material living created mountains of scrap steel and plastic, rivers of chemical waste, and clouds of soot and smog. Having long equated technological development with progress, Americans began to worry about conserving the nation’s resources and to recoil before the grim byproducts of unrestrained or shortsighted industrial activity.

Official recognition that water and air pollution and resource conservation were world problems led to the establishment in 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), charged with administering and enforcing a growing body of pollution-control legislation. Since the creation of the EPA, Congress has passed laws regulating pesticides, ocean dumping, solid waste disposal, and toxic substances, as well as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Noise Control Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The occurrence of large-scale environmental disasters, such as the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and growing public concern over such problems as the depletion of the earth’s rain forests and ozone layer and the effects of global warming and acid rain have given the EPA a critical and challenging role to play in the nation’s future.

Contents:

Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options


Title: Milestone Documents in the National Archives

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options


Title: Milestone Documents in the National Archives

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "Incandescent Lamp Patent," Milestone Documents in the National Archives in United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Milestone Documents in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995), Pp.112-117 65–68. Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L4F3LKFAZWUFZYH.

MLA: . "Incandescent Lamp Patent." Milestone Documents in the National Archives, in United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Milestone Documents in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995), Pp.112-117, pp. 65–68. Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L4F3LKFAZWUFZYH.

Harvard: , 'Incandescent Lamp Patent' in Milestone Documents in the National Archives. cited in , United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Milestone Documents in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995), Pp.112-117, pp.65–68. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L4F3LKFAZWUFZYH.