Patents as Genealogy Resources

by Mary Beth Newbill, Southern History and Government Documents

We typically think of patents as a way of legally protecting the rights of inventors and entrepreneurs, but have you ever realized that historical patents could be valuable to genealogists? Knowing if you have an ancestor who was granted a patent could help you gain insight into their work and educational background, or just give you another piece of the genealogical puzzle.

Bell Toy Patent
Example of name change and street address
Since patents typically list the inventor's hometown, they can tell you where your ancestor was living at the time he or she received their patent. If they received multiple patents and moved around, you might be able to track their movements through their patents. Patents can also indicate citizenship in other countries and name changes, either through the courts or through marriage. Inventors all over the world filed for U.S. patents, so even if your ancestor lived in another country you might still find them listed on a patent.

The very first patent was issued in 1790 (signed by President George Washington) and, as of today, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has issued over 9,500,000 patents. Several resources exist that can help you determine if your ancestor received a patent and allow you to locate and view it.
First U.S. Patent
First patent issue in 1790 and signed by George Washington

Recently issued patents (1976 – present) are easy to search online at the USPTO's website. Patents issued before 1976 can be searched online, but it's more difficult and requires knowing either the patent number, classification number, or date of issue. Most genealogists probably do not have this information and need to search by the name of their ancestor. Since we're not doing the type of patent search (also called a prior art search) necessary in order to apply for a patent of our own, we can take a few shortcuts. Probably the easiest method is to use Google Patents. It's just like searching in Google except you're searching their database of U.S. patents. It's a friendly, familiar interface and you can search by keyword, name, date, location, etc.
Washing machine
Washing machine from 1870

Patents can be a great addition to your genealogy research. Thanks to our ability to search them online, take a few minutes and see if your ancestors were ever granted a patent. As a Patent and Trademark Resource Center, the Birmingham Public Library is happy to assist you in your search for historical patents. For further reading on using patents for genealogy, check out the links below: