Vulcanite Dentures, or When Patent Violators Strike Back

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars
RM: You probably all heard that This American Life episode called The Patent Attack, about innovation-stifling tech industry patents and patent trolls. Oh, it’s so good. So good. If you haven’t heard it, you should just go listen to it right now. I’ll wait.
RM: … Let’s see what’s on the internet… Alright.
RM: Now you don’t really have had to have heard the TAL show, but it gives an interesting backdrop to what you’re about to hear. Because as horrible and egregious as patent-enforcement and lawsuits are today, they rarely result in murder.
“murder, sir?”
RM: But things were different in 1879. That’s when a hounded and pursued patent violator struck back and made it possible for average working people to afford quality dentures.
John Marr (JM): It’s a very historically significant murder. I mean anyone who ever gets dentures, I mean, is indirectly affected by this crime.
RM: That’s John Marr.
JM: My name is John Marr, I’m the editor and publisher of the fanzine Murder Can Be Fun.
RM: 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. But 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.
JM: And these dentures had been overwhelmingly popular.
RM: But in 1864, a long-disputed patent application, originally filed a dozen years earlier, in 1852, was awarded and then acquired by the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company. It was a company created to collect fees, or very often, sue dentists who already used vulcanite. And there were plenty of dentists to go after. And the person that went after them was named Josiah Bacon, the treasurer of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company.
JM: And the Vulcanite Company was trying to collect and Josiah Bacon was trying to personally collect royalties from their patent from the dentists.
RM: The Goodyear Vulcanite Company now monopolized the market. Dentists were required to buy their rubber and other contraptions used to make denture bases from them. And there were heavy taxes and fees associated with all of this. The price just kept going up and up.
JM: Josiah Bacon was crisscrossing the country, throwing dentists in jail, extracting fees, fines, setting up sting operations. He was a very busy man. Very enthusiastic about enforcing his patent.
RM: It was reported, and disputed, that Bacon’s zeal for enforcing the patent may have been more his personal mission than that of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company.
JM: He had rigged the deal so he actually personally got the money. I don’t know the details but it sounds like a very unusual financial arrangement with the company.
RM: Enter Samuel Chalfant, a dentist who made dentures and who didn’t pay the Goodyear Vulcanite Company for the privilege.
JM: And Josiah Bacon was out to make an example of him. Josiah Bacon had chased Chalfant out of Delaware, out of St. Louis, and finally in San Francisco. And he was swearing he was going to send him to prison.
RM: Samuel Chalfant was completely beaten down by this relentless pursuit and claimed that he went to Josiah Bacon’s San Francisco hotel room on Easter Sunday 1879 to make peace. To pay whatever he could and just go back to being a simple dentist.
JM: However, Chalfant, he had a gun in his pocket. And as he says, he argued with Bacon, Bacon threatened to send him to prison. To command some respect, Chalfant pulled the gun, and as guns that you wave in front of your enemies always do, it went off.
RM: Samuel Chalfant murdered Josiah Bacon.
JM: Chalfant was like extremely upset. He sat in the hotel suite waiting for people to come in to capture him. Everyone was down at breakfast, so he slipped out of the hotel and he wandered around the city and took a room in a cheap rooming house and just kind of lay in bed for a few days. You know, guilty, feverish, distraught, and then he turned himself into the police. He made a statement to the police where he said he had shot Bacon accidentally.
RM: And the police believed he was sincere, thinking that he’d have to come up with some story better than that if it were truly premeditated.
JM: However, when it came time for a trial, the prosecution had this man marching into the hotel room of his bitterest enemy with a loaded gun in his pocket.
RM: The consensus was he was very lucky to get off with a ten-year sentence for second-degree murder.
JM: He actually had a very good gig in prison. He was the prison dentist. He had an office outside the walls, or actually, most importantly, he didn’t have to work in the jute mill making burlap sacks like most of the other poor guys did. The only part of the prison uniform he had to wear were striped trousers. His patients who weren’t convicts he could collect fees from. For being in San Quentin, he had it pretty good. But nonetheless, he just found it enormously oppressive and, you know, was quoted as saying that he would almost have preferred to have gone to the gallows than to just be locked up in his cell for 15 hours out of 24.
RM: Chalfant had a female admirer on the outside fighting for his release by normal, legal means. But it was alleged that she also tried to get him out of prison through less than legal means.
JM: Someone slipped him some non-striped trousers, a railroad ticket, some money, and some pistols, a bag of laundry, and he snuck out with the crowd of visitors taking the boat back to the city. And before they noticed he was gone he was safely ensconced on a Utah-bound train. The only reason he was caught- he had disguised himself with some whiskers- but he was eating a peach while they were crossing Nevada and the juice from the peach loosened the gum holding his whiskers enough that a rail detective spotted that this guy looked kind of suspicious.
RM: He was detained in Nevada.
JM: He never made it past Winnemucca.
RM: Even though he got caught escaping, he was later pardoned and only spent six years in prison. When he got out…
JM: He returned to San Francisco and was a very successful dentist until he retired, shortly before the earthquake.
RM: But it must have felt kind of weird making Vulcanite dentures.
JM: In doing my research, I found a directory of professional men of San Francisco from the 1890s. And there was a half page in there on him and it talks about his education, his experience on serving the civil war, but it makes absolutely no mention of rubber dentures, Josiah Bacon, or the Vulcanite Company.
RM: But this extreme case of anti-patent troll vigilantism, or cold-blooded murder, however you want to view it, did have an effect. The Goodyear Vulcanite Company stopped enforcing their patent.
JM: Apparently none of their employees was really willing to take a chance at being shot by a dentist. And there’s also the implication that sort of this whole denture patent was kind of Josiah Bacon’s personal project more than it was a major policy of the company’s.
RM: And the patent lapsed. Most of the world forgot about Samuel Chalfant. But the late 19th-century dental profession learned from their bitter experience and what they considered the Vulcanite rubber patent reign of terror. They collectively positioned themselves so that they could no longer be milked by any profiteering patent-holders. Many years later, a similar scheme was put into motion to try to collect royalties for gold crowns. And the dental association killed it easily. Without firing a single shot.
RM: 99% Invisible was produced this week by me, Roman Mars. It was based off a story by John Marr from his fanzine Murder Can Be Fun. The great, great life-changing fanzine Murder Can Be Fun. It’s not a website. It’s on paper. Ask your parents. Special thanks to plastics historian Julie Robinson. Yes, there is such a thing as a plastics historian. And her name is Julie Robinson.

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