Monday, February 4, 2008

Mary Latham's Pessary and other Google Patents

Here is an overlooked digital tool for historians--Google Patents Search. Incorporating 7 million patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the database has sophisticated search features at the Advanced Patent Search page. So what were the inventive residents of early Spokane patenting?

Well, Mary Latham developed a pessary. "My invention relates, primarily, to means of supporting the womb in that disarrangement of the organ known as 'prolapsus uteri,' or to prevent movement of or shock two said organ," Latham reported. Some types of late-19th century pessaries (though not this one) were sold as medical aids but actually used as birth control devices. This was especially common after the Constock Act of 1873 made it illegal to send contraceptive devices or even information through the mail. (This NY Times review article, "The Secret History of Birth Control" is a good overview.)

What else were Spokanites inventing? Lots of farm equipment. A watch fob fastening device. A device to the head still when surgery is performed. A toilet designed "to prevent the escape of noxious fumes." A complicated toy horse. A water-powered machine gun. And most amazing, a 1900 patent for an automobile "adapted for use as a pleasure vehicle ... or may be used as a gun carriage by using a suitable armor plate."

The best of these old patents are the elegant and sometimes goofy line drawing of the inventions. I think that students would delight in these. Patents are also a good way to explore local history--even most small towns will show a patent or two over the 200 year history of the Patent Office.

1 comment:

TeacherThink said...


I just posted on Google Patents before I had seen your post on it. Obviously you were a couple of years ahead of me, but what a great resource!

As a Spokane high school history teacher, I follow your each and every post! Thanks so much!

Jeff @