Before the 1850s, dentures were made out of very hard, very painful, and very expensive material, like gold or ivory. They were a luxury item. The invention of vulcanite hard rubber changed everything. It was moldable, it could be precisely fitted, and it was relatively cheap. Everyone began making dentures with vulcanite bases. But in 1864, a long-disputed patent application, originally filed in 1852, was awarded and then acquired by the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company. It was an outfit created to collect fees, or very often, sue dentists who already used vulcanite, and there were plenty of dentists to go after.
The person in charge of pursuing the violators was Josiah Bacon, the treasurer of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company. The patent was enforced with extreme prejudice, despite the protestations of the US dental profession.
To quote the secretary of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company, Ernest Caduc: “Many dentists… relying upon the secret nature of the business, prefer to steal this property rather than buy it…”
It all came to a head, on Easter Sunday in 1879. A vulcanite denture patent-violating dentist named Samuel Chalfant went to settle his business with his pursuer, Josiah Bacon, in his San Francisco hotel room. Chalfant brought a gun.
A print version of this story originally appeared in the fanzine Murder Can Be Fun by John Marr.
This American Life #441: “When Patents Attack!”
What song plays at the end if the episode?
I have no regrets in listening to the hour long “When Patents Attack!”
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