Rollin White was a machinist, working for Samuel Colt as a contract worker. At the same time, he tinkered with bits and pieces of scrap, and designed a firearm of his own. It wasn’t a practical or even workable design: it was inferior to existing handguns, but in 1855 White was granted a patent, number 12,648: “Improvement in Repeating Fire-arms”.
This would be of no significance whatsoever, were it not for the fact that White accidentally included a feature that nobody had patented in the USA. His weapon showed a cylinder bored all the way through, such that cartridges might be inserted from the back – just about the only sensible way to load many firearms.
Such a feature should never have been covered by a patent, because it was already commonplace. In Europe the Lefaucheux Model 1854 was already in production: a revolver using the new self-contained metallic cartridges.
In the USA, things weren’t quite so up-to-date, and revolvers used loose black powder. The owner of a revolver had to pour powder into each of the cylinder mouths, ram a bullet into place, and fit a percussion cap onto the rear of each cylinder cavity. The revolver gave you several rapid shots… but after that you had a fiddly job on your hands.
Samuel Colt also held some patents. Years earlier, he’d figured out how to index the cylinders of a revolver so that a fresh one was presented after each shot, based in part upon a mechanism that he’d seen used for a ship’s wheel. Colt’s patents were set to expire in 1857, however, and this led others to design revolvers of their own.
Among them were two partners whose names might be familiar: Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson. They’d worked together before, and as Colt’s patent expiry loomed, Wesson was developing a new cartridge revolver. His research turned up Rollin White’s bizarre patent, and some potentially bad news: the “bored-through cylinder” was protected for years to come.
Smith and Wesson approached Rollin White, and entered into an agreement with him: White would be paid a royalty of 25 cents for every revolver they produced. In return, White granted them exclusivity, and undertook to defend the patent against infringement. Smith and Wesson moved fast: on the day that the key Colt patent expired, their workshops started volume production of their “Model 1”.
While it was in effect, patent 12,648 forced manufacturers other than Smith and Wesson to come up with some of the strangest handguns of the 19th century. There were tapered cartridges that loaded from the front of the cylinder; there were side-loading cylinders; there was a cheeky “dual ignition cylinder” that featured screw-in inserts for old-style percussion caps… that you promptly unscrewed, leaving you with what was effectively a “bored-through cylinder” that would accommodate cartridges.
Rollin White ought to have made out like a bandit: a 25 cent royalty represented a considerable chunk of the profit on a handgun that sold for $12.75 – not bad pay considering that he should never have been granted the license. In reality, White was kept busy with expensive lawsuits, and although the courts usually found in his favour, Smith and Wesson profited far more than the patent-holder. In an application to extend the patent on the grounds that he had not been fairly compensated, White reported that he had made $71,000 while Smith and Wesson earned over $1 million. As ‘An act for the relief of Rollin White’ the bill went clear through the senate – before being vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant in January 1870. The patent had caused considerable inconvenience to those working to arm the forces of the Union during the American Civil War, and the former Commanding General of the United States Army wasn’t about to let that go.
Rollin White, not exactly a patent troll but certainly one of the more disruptive unsuccessful inventors of the 19th century, fell into bankruptcy… although ultimately he did somewhat better in the sewing machine business.
The patent was gone, but the lesson in how not to license intellectual property remains true to this day.