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Not the First U.S. Aeronautical Patent

Graphic showing old print of a hot air balloon with red circle and diagonal bar superimposed

According to a summary list of patent titles published in 1812 in the book The Emporium of Arts and Sciences, by John Redman Coxe (p.392), a U.S. patent was issued to Moses McFarland on 28 October 1799 on a “Federal Balloon.” More information on the patent is impossible to obtain from the U.S. Patent Office because the original copies of patents were lost when the building in which they were stored burned to the ground in 1836. Only a few of those patents were ever restored.

Some sources, including books and web sites, state that this represents the first aeronautical patent issued in the U.S., which is probably only assumed from the patent title of “Federal Balloon.” However, this is apparently a false assumption, as can be found in correspondance in 1799, held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Hints are found in Google Books on a search under “Federal Balloon.” Snippet views of Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1799), 6 read:

From p.136: “Federal Balloon, absurdity of name for Major McFarland's exercising machine (J.Russell) 12, 103.”
From p.306: “McFarland, Major Moses. Oct 5, 1799. From J. Wagner. In regard to patent for Major M's invention of the Federal Balloon; suggests a change of name. 12, 157.”

More information, kindly provided by a Reference Assistant with the Massachusetts Historical Society was received in reply to an email enquiry:

After examining the two Timothy Pickering letters referenced in the “Google Snippet” I cannot positively confirm that the “Federal Balloon” was not aeronautical, but indications would seem to lean in that direction. On 23 September 1799 Pickering writes to J. Russell:

“I wish Major McFarland has hit on a proper name for his machine; it has no relation to a 'balloon' and his motive for calling it 'federal' is rather fanciful than solid. The machine itself promotes[?] the idea of a whirligig; but if it is substantially useful in promoting health, I should, for myself, be better pleased if the Major was to call it McFarland's Exercising Machine, or by some other name that did not suggest its being a plaything or an object of idle amusement. If found greatly inspired[?], it then[?] will be permanent, and the name I have proposed would then very properly perpetuate the memory of the Inventor.”

The letter to McFarland of 5 October 1799 is largely illegible, although the gist seems to be Pickering simply suggesting a name change for the “machine”.

So, without being entirely certain one way or the other, I send along the information and you may do with it what you will. Please let me know if I can help further.

Note that these documents were written in the same year that the patent was issued, and describe it critically as having “no relation to a ‘balloon’” and that it would be better called an “Exercising Machine.” Thus, unless there is other evidence, this 1799 patent seems to have been falsely attributed as the first U.S. aeronautical patent. (The historical context is that the Montgolfier Brothers made their first hot-air balloon test in France on 5 Jun 1783.)

The fourth edition of Famous First Facts by Joseph Nathan Kane is one of the books that has referred to McFarland's patent as a “first.” Confirmation has been received by email from the publisher that the sixth edition has dropped this reference.

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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