It's often said that America's Founding Fathers would not recognize the United States of today. But surely they would be pleased to see that the nation they envisioned when they were crafting the Constitution has become a world leader in any number of pursuits, including science and technology.
Aside from good old-fashioned American ingenuity, how did it happen?
The answer lies in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, in which the Founders provided protections to reward the ingenuity and entrepreneurship that have advanced scientific innovation.
The Founding Fathers gave Congress the power "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."
With that power, known today as patent protection, came the authority to protect intellectual property and the rights of inventors to profit from their discoveries. Without this, our lives would be radically different and much worse today.
Ever since President George Washington signed the first U.S. patent in 1790 — for a new method of producing "Pot Ash" and "Pearl Ash" — this critical provision in the Constitution and the solemn respect with which the U.S. government treats intellectual property have contributed more than any other factors to American economic and technological leadership.
For more than two centuries, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has reinforced the incentives for Americans to invent just about everything, from the cotton gin to the telephone to the pacemaker. More than 7 million inventions have been created — some for recreation, others to fulfill necessary tasks with less time and effort. Inventors have invested time and money in these creations knowing that they would have an exclusive period to license them and recoup their investments.
Even the Internet, which began as a government tool, has become what it is today because of private innovation and the profit motive. Wi-Fi, PayPal, and iTunes are all private innovations.
And patents have enabled companies to create thousands of new drugs — from Allegra to Cipro to Rituxan. Some treat relatively minor annoyances, others improve the quality of life, and others cure diseases that would have been deadly just 25 years ago.
In the late 1930s, after rediscovering Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming's work on the antibiotic penicillin, British scientists faced the seemingly impossible task of developing a method for mass-producing what would become the world's first true miracle drug. They turned to Pfizer, an American company, which applied for a patent and invested millions of dollars in devising fermentation technologies to produce penicillin, the first real defense against bacterial infection.
The company dedicated nearly all of its resources to finding a method for manufacturing the drug in large quantities, hoping to see a sizable return on its investment. Because it succeeded, Pfizer became the world's largest distributor of penicillin.
The drug — and Pfizer's investment — saved countless lives and obviated the need for many amputations as the allies fought in World War II.
Some today scoff at the profit motive, and particularly its role in critical medical advances. Why should patent-holders make so much money when their inventions save lives? Indeed, some great inventors heroically refused to apply for patents or profit from their inventions, including Jonas Salk, who pioneered the polio vaccine.
But Salk's work would never have been possible were it not for technologies and laboratory equipment developed earlier by other inventors, who depended on their inventions for their livelihood. Indeed, if patents did not exist, inventors large and small would not be able to dedicate the time and money to new inventions.
And that's why the patent exists — to uphold the age-old maxim that a laborer is entitled to his wage. It benefits everyone in ways barely conceivable by establishing certainty about who owns intellectual property. It guarantees that future inventions will continue as long as there are creative minds and enough money to help them bring their ideas to fruition — to find a better way to distribute information, heat and equip your home, or kill a germ.
Next time you log on to your computer, pour yourself a cup of joe from your coffee maker, or pop a pill, thank an inventor for making your life easier and better. And thank the Founding Fathers for creating the U.S. patent system that is a fundamental pillar in the strength of America.
Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a research organization based in Alexandria, Va., that focuses on free-market ideas for health reform.