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Rauner Yields Historic Treasure

Rauner Yields Historic Treasure By Laurel Stavis

Rauner Special Collections Library has proved a treasure trove of historic proportions. Two lawyers, one a Dartmouth alumnus, recently uncovered copies of 14 historic patents there, one of them the first ever granted in New Hampshire. The documents, feared lost forever, will be restored to the official record, where they can shed light on the extraordinary legacy of invention that characterized the nation's early years.

Cernota '99, Wright, and Asmus with historic patents
Cernota '99, Wright, and Asmus with historic patents (photo by Joe Mehling '69)

The U.S. Patent Office began granting patents in 1790 and issued 10,000 before the building burned in 1836, destroying all of its contents. Congress passed legislation authorizing the Patent Office to start over in 1837, beginning with number one. "But fewer than 3,000 of the pre-1836 'X patents' have been found," says Andrew Cernota '99, who, with law partner Scott Asmus and librarians at Rauner, recently raised the count by 14. (The letter "X" denotes patents issued before 1836.)

Ten of the X-patents went to Samuel Morey, who lived north of Hanover in Orford, N.H. The state's first patent, signed in 1793 by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, went to a Morey device-a steam-powered rotating spit for cooking meat. Morey also invented the earliest internal combustion engine. "I see no reason," he wrote in 1826, "why it may not be applied with the greatest advantage in drawing carriages...and giving direction and velocity to balloons." And he predicted that were it to be used in vehicles, "there will be little use for horses."

Morey's descendants donated his papers to Dartmouth, and the lawyers traced them to Rauner. "Technology today is standing on the shoulders of giants," Asmus told The New York Times in August. Last month, the pair gave copies of Morey's most significant patents to President Wright.

The Patent Office tracks recovery of pre-1836 records. "This isn't something that happens all the time," Bridgid Quinn, Patent Office spokesperson told The New York Times. "Our information service people were pretty excited."

By Laurel Stavis

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Last Updated: 5/30/08