99% Invisible: Vulcanite Dentures, or When Patent Violators Strike Back

on Wednesday, Feb. 1st

99% Invisible is, as producer Roman Mars tells it, a “tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world”. Don’t let the “tiny” fool you: there’s nothing small about the ideas Mars explores.

Episode 46: Vulcanite Dentures, or When Patent Violators Strike Back

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!
Public Radio Remix.

Produced by Roman Mars, with support from LUNAR. It’s a project of KALW, the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco and the Center for Architecture and Design.

Twitter: @romanmars


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