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The First US Patent Was for Potash, But What the Hell Is Potash?

Fertilizer, mostly. But also the thing that helped level the Eastern woodlands.
July 31, 2013, 6:30pm

On its face, the first ever patent (issued on this day in 1790) was nothing that anticipated the explosiveness and eventual hideousness of the US patent system, nor the technological age that crystallized out of it. Patent X000001 was granted on July 31, 1790 to Samuel Hopkins for a potash refining process that most blog posts I’ve seen today don’t even bother to explain.

The patent is hand-written and brief; it could fit on a file card pretty easily. It bears the signatures of President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Patent no. 1 was followed by only two more filings in 1790, one for candle-making and another for a flour-milling technology. For most of the past two centuries, the original document for X000001 was missing, only to be recovered in 1955.

I expect the anniversary of Hopkins’ patent will be used as a stepping off point for many a rant about how fucked up our patent system is in 2013, how it no longer serves its intended cause of fostering innovation and instead acts as a de facto commodity market where sellers of smart-phones can negotiate jumbles of idea ownership that have nothing to do with actual idea creation, past or future.

That’s fine and necessary; I hope some of that conversation makes it from tech blog readers to the general population, but so far patent outrage has been mostly confined to relative insiders. My own prediction is that the patent system is broken forever and will continue on as a grody marketplace full of speculation, hoarding, and endless litigation. At some point it will die, still broken.

We should talk about potash though, because it’s not at all random or insignificant. Anything to do with potash refining before the industrial revolution was huge. Farming until then was the technology (farming and war, really). Potash is considered to be the first industrial chemical, though most connotations for that term aren’t likely to be very fair in modern terms.

Potash is actually all over much of the middle parts of North America, a remnant of the ancient Western Interior Seaway, which left all kinds of helpful stuff in its stead: lime, silica, magnesium, tiny fossils, quartz, lime. To this day, it’s mined heavily from this area. Not far from Moab, Utah, next to the Colorado River, you’ll find massive evaporation ponds where potash is harvested from water pumped into underground deposits and back to the surface bearing the chemical in solution. It’s also mined in Wendover, Utah, home to the Bonneville Salt Flats.’

But what is this chemical? Potassium, basically. Potash is an impure form of the element, usually potassium contained within a salt as potassium chloride. Its most common use now is as fertilizer, potassium being one of the three crucial nutrients for plant growth (nitrogen and phosphorus are the others).

In the 1700s, it had a couple of other big-deal uses: first soap and then gunpowder. Gunpowder needed potassium nitrate, usually made from combining potash with nitrate-heavy bat guano, and at the dawn of the American Revolution potash demand exploded (pun halfway intended). First, the American colonies shipped the stuff to England for use as soap in textile mills and then suddenly it was needed here—to fight England.

Obtaining potash used to be way more brutal environmentally than the ancient seabed mining of today (it's still not awesome, however). In the 1700s, it came from trees, which is where X000001 comes in. Until the 1860s, potash was mostly derived from ashes of burned trees, which were typically provided by area residents and farmers. It worked out pretty well because the usual method of clearing a 100 acre homesteading tract was brutal slash and burn.

Potash evaporation ponds near Moab, Utah

Before the potash boom, the “burn” went to waste but soon enough became a source of cash. Needless to say, it was a rather horrifying resource extraction process and before the close of the 16th century, most the Eastern hardwood forests had been cleared. Settlers were left with sparse patches of forest and tons of used-up waste ash.

Samuel Hopkins innovation was straightforward: instead of just dumping ash into water to be dissolved, one cooked it first in a furnace, effectively burning it again. It got rid of free carbon in the ash by increasing its carbonite load; the resulting ashes had a much greater potash yield.

This new technology—available from the inventor for a $50 down-payment and $150 later on—coupled with the woodland loss in New England had the effect of centralizing potash production in village “asheries.” Hopkins died in 1818, after moving in with his daughter and son-in-law in New Jersey for financial reasons. The first patent holder did not get rich, and his innovation, which depended on plentiful hardwood, was obsolete within decades.

Potash itself is hardly obsolete, however. I use the stuff in its organically-derived form—from seaweed—on plants, which still love it centuries later. It’s actually in the news right now for non-patent anniversary reasons, as Russia just pulled out of the worldwide potash-producers cartel, deflating the material’s value dramatically and instigating a price war. This is presumably short-term good news for producers and consumers of agricultural products, but I wouldn’t count on it staving off those global food riots for too long.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.