Patently ingenious

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City and Hamilton County, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.

Hamilton County, Iowa was far removed from Eastern business hubs and still thirty miles from the nearest railroad connection in 1866. But those conditions didn’t hinder three county residents from gaining patents for their inventions. Those became the first three patents credited to Hamilton County.

United States Patent records show that John S. Kenyon of Webster City was the first local to be awarded a patent. He was issued patent number 56,064 on July 3, 1866 for his improvement in sofa bedsteads.

Not much is known about Kenyon except he opened a furniture making business in the old Stoddard and Pray furniture building in early 1865. He also advertised “coffins made-to-order” for the town’s estimated 622 residents.

On July 7, 1866 Kenyon sold all of his tools and household goods, including his knives and forks, at public auction. There are no further records suggesting where his next home would be.

The June 16, 1866 edition of the Hamilton Freeman advised readers that “Mr. Kenyon, cabinetmaker, has just returned from Washington, having secured patents upon his new bedstead and lounge”. The article continued that “Chas. Wright, jeweler, started for the Federal City, on Monday, for the purpose of securing a patent for his writing machine”.

Both inventors would have traveled by stagecoach to the nearest railroad head likely Boone to make their journey to Washington, D. C. to begin the process of applying for the patent.

Chas. Wright was actually Abner Peeler and the story concerning his invention of the first typewriter is well-known in this area. Peeler received patent number 57,182 on August 14, 1866 for his writing and printing machine. Peeler was accompanied to Washington by his employer, W. A. Crosley.

To secure a patent an inventor must adhere to the prescribed rules set out by the U. S. Patent office and current laws. Part of the patent application for general patents required a precise architectural drawing explaining the item. Many of those early drawings were done by the Norris Peters firm of photo lithographers and mapmakers in Washington, D. C. The charge was around $5.

Applicants also relied on law firms to prepare all the documents and shepherd the forms through the process. Many of Hamilton County’s early inventors hired the Washington, D. C. firm of Chipman, Hosmer & Co. Founding partner of this firm was Norton P. Chipman, Ohio born, but raised in southern Iowa. As an Iowa lawyer and member of the 2nd Iowa Infantry during the Civil War, Chipman undoubtedly knew W. A. Crosley and Charles A. Clarke of Webster City. Those two likely steered locals toward the firm. Attorney fees for an uncomplicated application ranged from $25 to $35 according to the firm’s 1870 brochure.

The third 1866 Hamilton County patent went to William M. Owen of Homer for his new and improved wrench. This patent, number 59,634, was issued November 13, 1866 for a wrench with a movable jaw. An apparatus on the handle allowed adjustment of the jaws.

State Library of Iowa statistics list 531 utility, design and plant patents issued to Hamilton County inventors between 1866 and 2009. This figure is likely lower than the actual count, as many locals collaborated with others from another county. Every town in the county, including Hook’s Point, is represented. These new and useful improvements ranged from harness snap hooks to farm machinery, fishing equipment and a weeder fork.

Many of the local inventions helped build the industrial core of Webster City beginning in the 1890’s.

Frank Brown came to Webster City in 1870 and opened a carriage and blacksmith shop. He invented a speed cart in 1893 for trotters and pacers that was in great demand. His Brown Spring Ice Skate Company began in 1896 when he and his son Burnice received patents for ice and roller skates. The two men hold ten patents between them.

Charles Closz began the Closz Sieve Factory in 1903. He and his brother, Jacob, began patenting grain separating screens and adjustable sieves in 1890. By 1921 the two held 27 patents relating to sieves and screens. The factory employed 25 to 30 men. At least two of their employees, William Campbell and Charles Crawford, received patents pertaining to the business which they assigned to the Closz factory. Closz sold the factory to Hart Carter Company in 1928.

William, George and McKinley McCollough received more than 20 patents for many livestock feeding and watering devices. These were built and sold all over the United States by their McCollough Manufacturing plant. Included in the McCollough total is William’s 1921 invalid’s bed.

Ernest Johnson began producing livestock equipment at his Monarch plant around 1917. That was also the date he received his first patent. In all, Johnson secured 28 patents on his inventions. Most were manufactured at his Monarch plant. One of his most popular discoveries was the Thermo-Jug insulated container. Monarch merged with the Knapp Company of St. Louis in 1929.

The largest number of patents secured for manufacturing in Webster City would be for the benefit of the washing machine and vacuum cleaner plants. George Castner’s name appears on 24 patents for parts and production for the original Beam washing machine plant. Other locals gaining patents in the early evolution of Beam washing machine functions include James R. Foster and Willis R. Foster. Harry J. Mertz secured the original patents for Beam for the Doodlebug.

After the plants sold to outside interests, their employees continued to refine the processes, receiving patents for their innovations. Most of those patents were assigned to the employer.

There are many other local residents with current patents credited to their names for items ranging from soybean cultivars to corn head reel devices to medical systems. Those patents demonstrate the community continues to have the ability to innovate.

Nineteenth century patent applications began with the notation that this invention was for certain new and useful improvements. That statement is still accurate today as our local citizens continue to use their knowledge and resourcefulness to improve our lives.