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Our Rich History: Kentucky inventors, entrepreneurs, innovations; free workshop at NKU’s Grant Center

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

Kentucky is famous for its Bourbon, the Kentucky Derby, horse breeding, and historic tourist sites such as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Yet the Bluegrass state also contributes its fair share of entrepreneurial and inventive commercial activity. This was affirmed recently by Site Selection magazine (Volume 66, Issue 2, March 2021, pages 67, 86), an industry trade publication, that ranked Kentucky at the very top of the South-Central region in the United States for economic development projects per capita and number three nationally.

Furthermore, Kentucky Commercialization Ventures (KCV), a collaborative program funded by KY Innovation, is working with Kentucky’s public higher education institutions such as Northern Kentucky University’s Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) at Steely Library. KCV provides guidance to spur innovations and patents into market-ready products, services and business startups. A free business workshop for inventors and entrepreneurs is scheduled onsite at NKU’s Grant County Center in Williamstown on Tuesday, June 15. (Details below)

Granville T. Woods. Source: The Evening Repository, March 12, 1892, p. 12.

Northern Kentucky and the Bluegrass region have a rich history of inventors and patents, even as early as the antebellum period. According to three official indexes — Digest of Patents (1790-1839); Register of Name and Date Patents (1790-1836); and Subject-Matter Index of Patents for Inventions issued by the United States Patent Office from 1790 to 1873, Inclusive, the first Kentuckian to receive a patent was Edward West of Lexington. His US patent X290 was granted for a Metal Amulet on May 19, 1800. A watchmaker, silversmith, and steamboat innovator, West garnered four other early patents on July 6, 1802, including X380 for a Gun Lock, X381 for a Steam Boat, and X378 and X379 for Nail Cutting. You can see more details in History of Lexington (1872) by George W. Ranck.

Unfortunately, none of West’s early patents still survive, as they were destroyed in a Patent Office fire of 1836. Arbitrary patent numbers suffixed with an “X” were assigned by the Patent Office to those patents granted from 1790-1836 — fewer than 3,000—that have been recovered over time, minus their drawings. Today, these recovered patents from the period 1790-1836 are known as the “X-Patents.”

Historic US patents document early commercial developments in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The Northern Kentucky region, including Covington, Newport, and Maysville, included industries such as cotton factories, rolling mills and nail factories. The first US “X” patent granted to an inventor in Northern Kentucky appears to have been James Wright, of Covington, then part of Campbell County (1820 US Federal Census). According to historical patent indexes, Wright’s X2744 patent was granted on February 28, 1817 for a unique Spinning Wheel Improvement.

The earliest listed patent granted to a woman inventor in Kentucky was to a Campbell County resident. Women Inventors (1790-1888) patent index recognizes Charlotte W. Allen of Newport, Kentucky and her US patent 62,800 for an “Improved Smoothing-Iron Stand” on March 12, 1867.

Meanwhile, historically renowned African-American inventor, Granville Woods, resided in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati during his formative years of earning the title as the “Black Edison.” He acquired 17 of his 35+ US patents while in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. Woods researched and experimented with inductive communications, sometimes known as “wireless telegraphy.” His most significant patented inventions developed in our region included an apparatus for transmission of messages by electricity (US Patent 315,368) in 1885—which was purchased by American Bell Telephone Company of Boston. In 1887, Woods was granted patents for induction telegraphy (US Patent 373,915), also known as multiplex telegraphy, and an improvement in railway telegraphy (US Patent 373,383). Learn more about Granville Woods’ life in Kentucky here.

Self-portrait of Thomas Zane Roberts. Source: Anthony W. Frohlich, Timekeeper: Thomas Zane Roberts, A Kentucky Renaissance Man (Union, KY: Enchanted Valley Publishing CO., 2008), p. 56.

Fred McKinley Jones is another African-American inventor hailing from our region. Jones invented the first successful mobile refrigeration devices for trucks and trains, keeping fresh produce and meats from spoiling. His patented invention, Air Conditioner for Vehicles (US Patent 2,303,857) in 1942, replaced the earlier—and less effective— method of using ice and salt for transporting foods. This invention vastly expanded successful food-delivery distance, allowing fresh produce availability year-round and nationwide. For more about Jones, see Lois Hamill’s NKyTribune article here.

Agricultural technology relates directly to the industrial revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as machinery greatly enhanced farming productivity. Thomas Zane Roberts of Boone County, Kentucky was described as a “rural genius.” Besides farming and horticulture, he served as a teacher, a poet, a musician, an artist, an astronomer, a carpenter, and an inventor. Roberts is most famous for his early solar invention, the “Celestial Clock of Middle Creek,” which is on display in a financial banking service in Burlington, Kentucky.

The Roberts family owned a 257-acre “steam mill” at Middle Creek. Roberts graduated from the Morgan Academy in Burlington in 1875. Soon he joined the Patrons of Husbandry, a farmers’ protective society that innovated farming production yields after the repercussion of the depressive trends of harvests created by the Panic of 1873. Well known for his oratorial skills as president of the local Farmers’ Grange, some of his poems and short stories were published in the Boone County Recorder under the pen name Zane. Roberts gained a teaching certificate from Boone County in 1878 and taught in local schools and churches through 1902. In addition to farming and milling, his domestic inventions included a hand-cast fireplace blower, a swinging bed, foldaway walls and suspended ceilings.

In addition to patents, other intellectual properties that inventors and entrepreneurs reply upon include trademarks and copyrights. Trademarks refer to source identifiers utilized for business goods or services, while copyrights protect the creative expression of books, music, photographs, films, websites, etc.

Trademarks are granted by a government agency such as the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO defines a trademark as any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used to identify and distinguish the goods or services of one seller provider from those of others. Trademarks registered with the USPTO are marked with an encircled letter “Ⓡ” while those registered by a state government or common law use are marked with a “TM” after the trademarked name or symbol.

1922 edition of The Everyday Song Book, with music and lyrics of the song “Good Morning to All,” featuring the third verse “Happy Birthday to You.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Trademarks are perhaps the most visible form of intellectual property, especially associated with online businesses. They differentiate your product and/or service from competitors. When one thinks of trademarks, often brand names and logos come to mind. Such branding influences customer recognition and projects the goodwill of a business. Famous trademarks from Kentucky include the phrase “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good” of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), the Kentucky Derby’s iconic horseshoe logo encompassing a stylized rose in the middle above the wordmark “KENTUCKY DERBY,” and the University of Kentucky’s mark consisting of the letters U and K framing its Memorial Hall steeple in-between.

Examples of Copyright include two perennial popular songs with Kentucky roots. “Happy Birthday” was introduced as “Good Morning to All” in 1894 and originally published in a book entitled Song Stories for the Kindergarten, by school-teacher sisters Mildred and Patty Hill of Louisville. Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Haven Gillespie of Covington, was introduced in 1934. Fellow Kentuckian Rosemary Clooney often performed one of Gillespie’s earlier tunes from 1923, You’re in Kentucky (Sure as You’re Born). Copyright registration is advantageous in protecting expression of business brochures, apps, and websites, including source codes.

Besides searching for historic patents of your ancestors of long ago, do you have a great idea for a newfangled unique product, or a new business service which could be patented? Do you need to learn more about trademarks or copyrights? Consider free community resources specially designed to assist inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses. For example, PTRCs are a nationwide network of libraries that are designated by the US Patent & Trademark Office to disseminate patent and trademark information and to support the varied intellectual property needs of the public.

You are invited to attend Grow Your Small Business, a free business workshop for inventors and entrepreneurs onsite at NKU’s Grant County Center in Williamstown on Tuesday, June 15, 5-8 p.m. Free appetizers will be served during an outdoor social hour, followed by onsite expert speakers discussing innovation, marketing, intellectual property, business research, marketing, and legal issues. This seminar helps those entrepreneurs who are developing a new invention, starting a new small business, or existing businesses who wish to improve their business performance.

This event is presented by the Kentucky Innovation Network, NKU Grant County Center, Steely Library’s PTRC at NKU, the Small Business Development Center at NKU, Inventor’s Network Kentucky, Grant County Chamber of Commerce and others. It will be held at NKU Grant County, 390 North Main Street, Williamstown 41097. Registration is FREE here. For questions about registration, contact NKU Community Connections at connect@nku.edu or 859-572-5600.

John Schlipp is an Intellectual Property Librarian and Professor of Library Science at W. Frank Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). NKU is an official PTRC (Patent & Trademark Resource Center). John can be contacted at schlippj1@nku.edu or phone (859) 572-5723.

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