Congress passed the first federal patent law, "An Act to Promote the Progress of Useful Arts," in 1790. Because the nation was founded during the Industrial Revolution, the Founding Fathers well understood that the encouragement and protection of useful inventions was a necessity to national growth. Patent legislation was therefore submitted and passed by the First Congress of the United States at their second session. Prior to the national law, patents had been granted by individual states. A person might obtain a patent from both Pennsylvania and Virginia, but not New York and Massachusetts. Under the law of 1790, a nationwide patent could be issued by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, or the Attorney General. Once granted, a patent-holder would hold the exclusive rights to the substance or object patented. The first to gain this exclusive right was Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia. His invention was a method of producing pot and pearl ash, a material used in soap-making. Patent registration was slow in the waning years of the 18th century, but accelerated in the beginning of the 19th century. The patent law was modified several times in the decades following 1790. One change allowed aliens who had resided in the U.S. for more than two years to apply for patents; another change extended the window of opportunity for using a patent. The U.S. Patent Office expanded and was under the control of various federal agencies during its history. Through praise and criticism, the Patent Office has steadfastly enforced the laws under its jurisdiction. As the Freeman's Journal declared on February 9, 1792: "There is no part of the world, where the introduction of new and useful inventions in the arts, would be more extensively beneficial, than in the United States..."

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