Celebrating the Father of American Innovation

On President’s Day, we honor our first president and remember his many contributions to our country: his heroism during the Revolutionary War, his emphasis on a fair, balanced government, and his tradition of integrity and selflessness.

Less commonly celebrated – and perhaps less commonly known – is President Washington’s dedication to American creators and inventors. President Washington was a vocal proponent of strong intellectual property protections, even before the concept of formal intellectual property protections existed. President Washington advocated for a person’s right to enjoy the fruits of his/her labor and understood the importance of IP-driven innovation and creativity to economic development.

Throughout his career, Washington worked with individual creators and inventors to ensure their rights were recognized and respected.

When Noah Webster completed one of the first writings of his career, a spelling book, he hoped his literature would receive the same protections physical property received. “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms,” he wrote.

Webster’s message resonated with President Washington, and Washington gave him a letter of introduction to Virginia’s governor to help persuade the state to pass copyright legislation. As a result of Webster’s and Washington’s work, states soon began enacting copyright statutes.

Webster received a copyright in Connecticut, and the first 5,000 copy print of his spelling book sold out within nine months. Within 2 years, more than 75 million copies had been sold. With his profits, Webster was able to develop the famous dictionary that bears his name.

President Washington also helped spur the development of a first-of-its-kind mechanical propeller boat. In 1784, Washington met an innkeeper, James Rumsey, who showed him a model of a boat he had designed. Washington saw potential in the model and wrote Rumsey a certificate of commendation, urging the governor of Virginia to support Rumsey’s work. Rumsey used that certificate to obtain a patent in Virginia and in other states. While Rumsey’s original model proved too limited to navigate difficult chutes and currents, it inspired additional models, and, ultimately, Rumsey’s famous steamboat.

Having seen the power of IP protections, Washington fought to incorporate federal IP protection into the U.S. Constitution. James Madison introduced and Washington helped ratify what is now called the “IP Clause,” which gives Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and Useful arts, by securing, for limited Times, to Authors and Inventors, the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Later, Washington signed into law the first federal laws protecting IP, the Copyright Act of 1790 and the Patent Act of 1790.

Thus, Washington set the stage for first-in-class American innovation and creativity, the benefits of which we continue to see today. As Washington said, “I cannot forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement, as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad, as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home.”

This President’s Day, let’s give President Washington a new moniker. He’s not just the “Father of His Country.” He’s also the “Father of His Country’s Innovation.”

Courtney Paul is the manager of communications for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center.

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