Patents and Trademarks: VA Inventions History

Welcome to our PTRC's Virginia History Page!

Here you will find some highlights of innovation from Virginia's history starting in the 1800's through the present.  Interested in doing historical searches yourself?  Be sure to check the resources page for ideas!

(From the Library of Congress, remember WVa & Va were once one state:

Historical Patents & Innovators from Virginia

Many think of Thomas Jefferson when they think of early inventors in the US, and Jefferson certainly did invent, but also helped draft the first US patent laws.  Jefferson is also said to be the inventor/creator of the swivel chair (sat in during drafting the Declaration of Independence)!
Before there were national patent laws, states (and colonies before then) in the US did grant patents back as far as 1641 in Massachusetts.  These were only issued by court proceedings for that purpose, so any inventor needed to make a special case to their regional governing body.  With the development of the constitution, there were discussions on protection for inventors and James Madison of Virginia (along with Charles Pinckney of South Carolina) submit proposals.  This resulted in Congress having the power to "promote the progress of science and arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries" (Article 1, Section 8).  In 1790 when operations of the new US Government began, the first bill was passed for patents.
On to early patents: as Virginia and West Virginia were originally one state, historical patents from before 1863 will list cities and counties in Virginia that today might be part of West Virginia.  Also, the earliest patents from 1790 to 1836 were only given dates before numbering and examination were introduced.  Due to a fire in 1836 at the Patent Office, little is known about some of these early patents.
As one might imagine these early patents covered many of Virginia's key industries at the time, especially agriculture!  From Burke's List (see the research tab for more information), only Virginians had tobacco-related patents for example:
  • Tobacco, curing: 6 patents by Robinson, Pendleton, Baker, Tuck (2), and Newbold from 1809-1831
Other common patents from this time in Virginia included (number of patents in parentheses) are below and see the side panel for a full spreadsheet:
  • Corn shelling (4)
  • Cultivators (5)
  • Hulling seeds/grains (13)
  • Ploughs (19)
  • Straw cutting (8)
  • Thrashing machines (33) - top invention area!
    • Includes possibly the first Virginia Patent in 1791 by William Thompson of Richmond
  • Winnowing (8)
Also notable for pre-1836 was Cyrus McCormick who invented the grain reaper, making it possible for farmers to harvest more grain (not who started McCormick spices - they were in Maryland).
After 1836 there are lists such as Leggett's Index and even spreadsheets thanks to patent librarians like Jim Shaw of Kansas (see side panel for list of VA utility patents).  Many of these early patents did not even have drawings, although some did.  Here are some early patents from when they were first numbered and examined (must be novel): 
  • #45: Corn Sheller Machine, 1836 by J. C. Baldwin of Staunton, VA
  • #48: Railway Turnout, 1836 by J. Talbot of Portsmouth, VA
  • #60: Rope Yarn Putting Up, 1836 by J. H. Echols of Lynchburg, VA
  • #99: Compass Quadrant, 1836 by F. Whiteley of Stanardsville, VA
  • #113: Door Plate Making, 1837 by W. C. Austin of Greensville, VA
  • #146: Railway Cattle Stop, 1837 by West, T. J. of White Hall, VA


As the patent system expanded, more and more patents came out every year, and the patent office even designated a new type of patent, called design patents in 1842 for how something looks versus how it works.  All the patents highlighted above are more of the classic invention type.  Even with this split of patent types, utility patents still reached over 1,000,000 by 1911 overall in the US!
Here are some more early inventions by Virginians from the 1850's through 1900.  Still plenty of emphasis on agriculture in this time, but more and more machines started to be developed!


In order of left to right by 1st row then second row:
  • Hademan: Burglar Alarm (Morgantown, VA)
  • Leedy: Lamp (Woodstock, VA)
  • Hunter: Rat Trap (Heresford, VA and co-inventor in Ohio)
  • Hedrick: Repeating Cannon (Wythe Co, VA)
  • Gibbs: Sewing Machine (Steele's Tavern, VA)
  • Williams: Peanut Harvester (Newville, VA)
And a bonus: early design patents! 1880 - Tunstall designed specialized Picture Screws & 1859 - Peach Brand (now would be a trademark)

Throughout the 20th Century there were more and more businesses and companies leading the way with inventions, although sole inventors still existed for some products.  With the addition of plant patents too, there were now 3 types of patents (utility, design, plant) plus trademarks for intellectual property.
Here are some classic and interesting inventions from the first part of the 20th century:


In order of left to right and then top to bottom:
  • Furry: Automobile Door Latch (Bridgewater, VA - 1925)
  • Phelps: Liquid Level Indicator (Staunton, VA - 1925)
  • Wilkinson: Thrust Bearing (Richmond, VA - 1930)
  • Gray: Evergreen Plant (Oakton, VA - 1933)
  • Russell: Strawberry (Jonesville, VA - 1939)
  • Loftin: Cedar Chest (Altavista, VA - 1932) and Ad for the Cedar Chest by Lane (from VA Museum of History and Culture)
  • Crouch: Attachment for Ripsaws (Pulaski Co., VA - 1940)
  • West: Automobile License Plate Ornament (Arlington, VA - 1940)
As the 20th century progressed, more and more inventions were assigned (owned) by companies, some of which had multiple states of influence.  Below are some later 20th century patents (even one into the 21st) by Virginia Companies (see the VA Museum of History & Culture's List of major businesses that owned these).  Coca-Cola even had their Central Bottling Company out of Richmond during the 20th century, although the intellectual property was assigned elsewhere in the country.
And as a bonus and one of our PTRC's favorite innovation areas, here are some early patents from NASA Langley too!

Here is the patent list for above:
  • Barrow Research Lab per this list: Gaseous Diffusion Paper Deacidification (Richmond, VA, although was assigned to DC - Council on Library Resources - 1972)
  • James River Corp: Paper Plate (Richmond, VA assigned, inventors in Wisconsin - 1994)
  • Universal Leaf Tobacco Company: Scanning and Sorting Tobacco Leaves (Richmond, VA - 2008)
  • Langley patents 1959-1963 including:
    • Batterson: Runway Light
    • O'Sullivan: Self Supporting Space Vehicle
    • Alford et al: Sweep Wing
    • Kehlet et al: Re-entry Vehicle
    • Faget et al: Space Capsule
Starting in the early 1900's there is evidence of Black inventions in the patent system.  The earliest invention per available information is a "File Holder" by Traverse B. Pinn of Alexandria, VA in 1880 (#231,355).  Other early inventions include: a "Machine for Stemming and Cleaning Peanuts or Green Peas" in 1901 by Benjamin Hicks of Vicksville, VA (#688,519) and Nathaniel Alexander (Lynchburg, VA) for a "folding chair" in 1911 (#997,108):

Overall, there are only around 75 patents for patents through 2006, but there are some inventors with multiple patents (Benjamin Hicks had 3 patents for example).  Earlier patents focused more on household goods, but later ones covered everything from sports through x-ray spectrometers!
Here are a few highlights:
  • Willie G. Jones, Sr. (1976): Basketball Rim and Net Structure
  • Debrilla M. Ratchford (1978): Suitcase with wheels and transporting hook
  • Emanuel L. Logan, Jr (1984): Emergency Exit Sign Utilizing an Electro-luminescent (EL) Lamp and a Brightness Monitor (E. L. Logan had multiple patents in this area!)
  • George Edward Alcon (1985): Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (another multiple patentee)
  • John L. Mack (1986): Participant-identification recording and playback system
  • Donald R. Lyons (2006): Process to create artificial nerves for biomechanical systems using optical waveguide network (had multiple patents as well)

Most recently, in 2023 Heman Bekele of Fairfax (born in Ethiopia) invented skin cancer treating soap and won 3M's Young Scientist's Challenge at the age of 14!  There's not a patent (plans to use prize money for the patent fees), but be sure to keep an eye on this promising young inventor!
Know of more?  Feel free to reach out to the PTRC representative - we would love to hear more about this underserved area!
Women were also involved early with patents in Virginia as far back as 1847!  These are partly found from a (partial) list covering 1790 to 1888, compiled under direction of the Commissioner of Patents: some argue that the list is incomplete, including Khan's Democratization of Invention (listed on the Library of Congress's Women Inventors & Patent Holders collection)
What is especially interesting is women's early contributions to medicine as even those in the 1800's cover these areas (see below) in addition to what might be expected (kitchen and clothing).
For some modern women, be sure to check out the Virginia Women in History too:
  • Bessie Blount Griffin (1914-2009): #2550554, although listed as NJ for the patent
  • Joycelyn S. Harrison (1964-present): has over 23 patents (#10435293) jointly from research as chemical engineer


Patents listed above:
  • Frances Carter: Uterine prolapse bandage (Washington, VA - 1847)
  • Henrietta Bendall: Improvement in Salves for the Cure of Cancers (Jarratt's Depot, VA - 1982)
  • Anna Parrott: Improved Medicine to cure Cholera (Norfolk, VA - 1866)
  • Mary Evard (multiple patentee): Gridiron (Leesburg, VA - 1868)
  • Bessie Griffin: Portable Receptacle Support (while in NJ - 1951)
  • Joycelyn Harrison: Nanotube Electrode (while at NASA Langley - 2018, joint patent)
Patenting in the USA has a long history - over 200 years since patents were first granted!  There are several key dates to note that impact how patents were granted, so keep these in mind when searching:
  • 1790: Congress passed patents statute and first patent granted
  • 1836: Introduced patents numbering system and examination (Patent Act of 1836), same year a fire in December destroys the Patents Office (so called X patents prior to this time are lost, some have been found)
  • 1842: First design patent granted
  • 1872: Official Gazette begins, publishing granted patents from the Patent Office
  • 1930: Plant Patent Act passed
  • 1952: Patent Act to update current patent law (modern patents), now in Title 35 of the US Code
  • 2011: America Invents act, brings US patent system in line with others world-wide including "first inventor to file" standard
How to search? Make sure to keep in mind historical events (West Virginia and Virgina were one state...) and try some of the databases listed in this guide too with specific queries like:
  • "blacksburg" AND "virginia" (Patent Public Search, but note that some might just list Montgomery County)
  • PP*.pn. AND virginia (Patent Public Search to find any plant patents)
  • Specific name search in Patent Public Search basic or combine with town in full Patent Public Search (note that to search OCR, i.e. older scanned patents text, the full search is your best bet)
  • Or even search by a specific topic in any database and restrict by year to find older patents!

Virginia Patents History Webinar

For a video overview of the below resources, be sure to check out the talk from March 2024 for the Virginia Quilting Museum as part of their 250 Quilts for the 250th anniversary of Virginia:

Lists of Virginia Patents

Historical Patent Lists & Guides

Here are some resources that can be helpful, including if you are looking for patents that will be harder to find electronically (i.e. pre-modern computer and internet systems):