Before Congress passed the Patent Act in 1790, inventors filed claims for their innovations with the King of England. The first American to do so was a woman, Sybilla Masters, who in 1712 sailed to England to petition the faraway Crown to protect her invention.
Probably born around 1676, Sybilla came with her father to the American colonies from Bermuda in 1687 and married Thomas Masters, a merchant later turned politician in Pennsylvania. She created two innovative mechanisms that would help improve life in colonial times. One machine helped to make hats, baskets, and other woven goods. She simplified an otherwise tedious practice by creating a device that could easily form and stain the raw material used in weaving.
Sybilla is best known for a mechanical pestle and mortar-like device used to manufacture corn meal. Masters had witnessed Native women repeatedly smashing corn with large, wooden poles. Instead of using a grinding method with gears and mill stones, Masters mimicked the Native process of smashing by using a hammering device. After the corn was pressed, it would transfer to a holding container below where it finished by being dried.
At the time, patent law forbade women to receive patents in their own name. So these two patents were filed in the name of her husband, Thomas.
Commendably, he refused to take the credit and admitted she was the inventor in the patent application. King George I acknowledged her as the authentic inventor when he approved and issued patent number 604 for Cleaning and Curing Indian Corn in 1715. The other patent for the woven goods was number 403 titled, Working and Weaving in A new Method, Palmetto Chip and Straw for Hats and Bonnets and other Improvements of that Ware. Receiving these two patents made Sybilla Masters the first colonist and the first woman residing in America to receive an English patent.
After receiving the patents, Sybilla opened a hat shop in England using her innovative weaving device. But her business adventure did not last long and she made her way home in 1716, four years after leaving. Back in Pennsylvania, she and Thomas used the device to produce a type of corn meal called Tuscarora Rice, supposedly a cure for tuberculosis. Although it was misleadingly advertised as a medication, the meal became a southern staple known as grits.