The Perkins Patent Tractors

One thing I’ve enjoyed as part of this blog is calling myself an “independent researcher” and an “independent journalist.” Because you know what? That’s what I’m doing and it turns out nobody can stop me.

But sometimes it feels more true than others. One time was when I tracked down a copy of Lewis Latimer’s poetry. This is another time, as I really had a good time tracking down the patent for Elisha Perkin’s Patent Tractors.

You all know what “patent medicine” is, right? In its formal usage, it refers to a proprietary medicine that is sold under a patent or trademark. Of course, these days basically every medicine is a patent medicine in that sense, and it’s all regulated, so that usage of the word has no real weight anymore.

More colloquially, the term refers to some concoction that a guy put together in a shed and sold as a cure-all. It would have alcohol or stimulants to make you feel good, and as long as it didn’t kill you too quickly, the snake oil salesman would be able to move on to the next mark.

But whereas the term usually referred to a pill or liquid, there was at least one case where the quackery extended to a specific device and method of treatment. Enter the Perkins Patent Tractors:

Set of three Perkins tractors. A648227Science Museum Group Collection Online.
Image available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License

These were used to remove “pains and inflamations from the human body … by applying a pointed piece of metal to the part affected, and drawing it across and from the part to some of the more muscular parts, continuing the application of the instrument a distance from the complaint.” US 106X.

Now, you know I like to link you directly to the patent itself. There’s nothing like a primary source! But here’s the thing… Elisha Perkins’s patent was destroyed in a fire in 1836, while in temporary storage with all of the other patents up to that date. Why were they in temporary storage? The USPTO was building a newer, more fire-proof storage location. The government didn’t maintain any copies, and so many original patents from that era were lost, with only the inventors’ copies surviving. Some have been recovered by historians, but others are lost forever. They are called the X-Patents.

Perkins received his patent in 1796, and it is designated number 106X. While the original has not been found, I was able to track down a copy of a license that Perkins did, allowing someone else to use his tractors. This license reproduced the text of the patent in full, so we can see exactly what was going on. I have provided a copy of the license at the bottom.

These old-timey patents looked a lot different from what we have today. They were often very short, with just a written description of the invention and without any clear claims. They predated the modern numbering system (hence the X label) and are numbered according to their date of issuance, which has led to some fractional numbers being assigned.

The license is tough to read, so I have transcribed the patent text here. I left out the archaic typography to make it more legible for a modern-day blog reader:

THE method which I have generally practised, and which I have found most successful in removing pains and inflammation from the human body, though I have sometimes varied the application as the circumstances of the case might be, is by applying a pointed piece of metal to the part affected, and drawing it across and from the part to some of the more muscular parts, continuing the application of the instrument a distance from the complaint; in some cases the pain is with greater facility removed by drawing the instrument from the pained part to the extremities; in some few obstinate cases it will be necessary to use friction upon the part till it produces a redness and small degree of inflammation; in Erysipelas the friction should be very light and gentle. —– In removing pains from the head, the part should be free from powder and pomatum; the hair should be separated by a comb, and the instrument drawn upon the skin from the forehead to the back of the head, and down the neck; sometimes it may be removed by operating only on the forehead, back of the neck, or pit of the stomach. The head-ach which arises from drinking to excess, it does not always cure. Pains in the breast are removed by operating on the breast, or the back opposite the part affected; in the hip, by operating on the thigh and leg; in the shoulder, by drawing the instrument from the shoulder, or arm, to the hand. Where there is a soreness, and pain in consequence of motion, it does not generally relieve. The complains, in which this operation has been most useful, are pains in the head, face, teeth, breast, side, stomach, back, rheumatisms, and some gouts. Venereal pains are apt to return and require a different treatment. It is unsafe to operate on the back during the existence of the Catamenia. The efficacy of the means is prevented by all oily or greasy substances.

USP 106X

According to biographical notes on Perkins on the Harvard Colonial North America page relating to the license, Perkins was expelled from the Connecticut Medical Society on charges of quackery in 1799. He went to New York to try a new patent medicine to treat yellow fever during an epidemic, caught the disease, and died from it that same year. The Patent Tractors were debunked later in 1799. Apparently an experiment with wooden tractors achieved the same results, and attempts on animals produced no results.

Perkins takes his place among the other notable quacks, such as Samuel Hahnemann (creator of homeopathy in 1796) and D.D. Palmer (creator of chiropractic in 1895), and managed to take a number of people along for the ride. He had devotees in England and Denmark, and sold sets to George Washington and Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. See Elisha Perkins and His Metallic Tractors, Yale J. Biol Med. Oct 1935, pp. 43-44.

For further reading, I recommend the sources listed on the excellent Kook Science wiki. And here is the license with the text of the original patent, in a mildly inconvenient format:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s