History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Prologue -- The Centennial Celebration

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On April 8-10, 1891, the patent system celebrated the beginning of its second century. The celebration was a year late, since the first United States patent statute became law on April 10, 1790. The celebration had been suggested on time, but there was no organization to arrange it. Finally, after the celebration did not occur on time, an ad hoc committee, chaired by patent attorney Robert Washington Fenwick, moved the plans off center, and momentum took over. The Congress of Inventors and Manufacturers of Inventions to Celebrate the Beginning of the Second Century of the American Patent System had its first session on Wednesday afternoon, April 8, 1891, at the Lincoln Music Hall, Washington, D.C. The first session was presided over by Benjamin Harrison, President of the United States. [footnote 1]

illustration Portrait of Charles E. Mitchell

Charles Elliott Mitchell, Commissioner of Patents, was a featured speaker at the first session, [footnote 2] speaking on "The Birth and Growth of the American Patent System." He noted that the Constitutional Convention, late in its session, decreed that the exclusive rights of inventors could be protected. He said: "They thought they were applying finishing strokes and touches to an edifice which was otherwise complete, when they were really at work on its broad foundations. For who is bold enough to say that the Constitution could have overspread a continent if the growth of invention and inventive achievement had not kept pace with territorial expansion. It is invention which has brought the Pacific Ocean to the Alleghanies. It is invention which, fostered by a single sentence in their immortal work, has made it possible for the flag of one republic to carry more than forty symbolic stars."

He pointed out that under the first patent statute of April 10, 1790, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General were to determine in each case whether a patent should be granted. From April to July they awaited a successful applicant. When he came at last, the three Cabinet officers -- Jefferson, Knox and Randolph -- sat in solemn dignity to determine that Samuel Hopkins was entitled to a patent for his new method of making potash and pearl ash. Mr. Mitchell maintained that the office being [Pg 2] discharged was not unworthy of the task. He pointed out that this was the first of 450,000 patents which had accomplished wizard-like transformations in a century, which could not have occurred without the stimulus of patents. When the saddle and pillion are compared with the parlor car, when the tallow candle is compared with the electric light, when the messenger boy is compared with the telegraph and the telephone, it is readily seen that the signing of that first patent to Samuel Hopkins was an act of historic grandeur worthy of the participants.

illustration Portrait of Orville H. Platt}

This was followed by a speech by Senator Orville H. Platt of Connecticut, a champion of the patent system. [footnote 3] He said: "When the patent system was established we were less than four millions of people . . . . Today we are more than sixty-three millions . . . . There were no `mechanics' in the meaning of the word as now used . . . . Mechanical knowledge was monopolized by the blacksmith, the carpenter, the millwright, and the village tinker . . . If you would in a measure form a conception of how large a factor invention has been in this progress, try to imagine what our social, financial, educational and commercial condition would be with an absolute ignorance of how steam and electricity can be used in the daily production of things for our sustenance and comfort; with an absolute ignorance of the steamboat, the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, the modern printing press, and the machinery in common daily use."

Senator Platt pointed out that men have adored God as they dwelt upon the words "And God said, `Let there be light,' and there was light." But the hours are not all light. Man for centuries spent half his life in night and darkness. It is not irreverent to note that when Thomas Edison said: "Let there be light," man had light anytime he wanted it.

The next speaker, Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labor, pointed out that it required thirty-two days of common labor in 1790 to produce a linen bedsheet. Also that Alexander the Great, after winning the battle of Arabela, could send the news to his capital in the same period of time as could Andrew Jackson after winning the battle of New Orleans. Prior to the day of the telegraph, the speed that man could travel was generally the limit of the speed for transmission of information. [footnote 4]

illustration Benjamin Butterworth
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Congressman Benjamin Butterworth of Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Patents, and formerly and subsequently Commissioner of Patents, presented a paper on the effect of the patent system on the growth and development of the United States. [footnote 5] He said: "Our fathers builded even better than they knew. I do not know what they hoped for or anticipated as possible under the [Patent] System, the foundation of which they laid in the Constitution, but this we may believe, that neither the most profound thinker nor the wildest dreamer could have anticipated such marvelous changes and improvements as have been wrought out under our Patent System . . . . If some member of the immortal Convention that framed our Constitution, endowed with the gift of prophecy, had arisen in his place, and in plain speech disclosed what their children would behold at the close of the first century as a result of the power conferred upon Congress in the [patent] clause . . . his associates would at once have felt an anxious concern in regard to his mental health . . . . The wise men in Congress fifty years ago found pleasure in ridiculing and laughing at the `crank,' Morse, who hung about the lobby of the House, insisting that he could use the lightning to transmit messages."

Further, said Mr. Butterworth, all of the people of the United States in 1840, with all the means then at their command, could not have harvested one of the present annual corn or wheat crops, and had they succeeded in doing so it would have rotted in the barns for lack of means of transportation to spots where at the same moment famine was reigning. One day's wages of a present-day Boston mechanic would pay the cost of transporting a year's supply of food for his family from Chicago, the great Western market, to Boston. Fifty years ago, one month's salary would not have been sufficient for that purpose.

Mr. Butterworth remarked that we read of the marvelous feats the heroes and demigods of Greek mythology accomplished. If they were true, they would still be eclipsed by the actual possibilities of today. One hundred years earlier, the twelve labors of Hercules had been regarded as something which could be accomplished only by a demigod. The inventor has taught us how to surpass everything that Hercules did. The labors of Hercules, said [Pg 4] Mr. Butterworth, would be undertaken by any contractor in good standing in the United States of his day, and he would give bond with approved security to complete the work in half the time required by the son of Jupiter. There is not a blacksmith in the United States, said he, who would consent to use the crude appliances in Vulcan's fabled shop. The fleet Mercury, with his winged sandals, could not keep pace with the messenger of Morse.

illustration Portrait of Robert W. Fenwick

Finally, Robert Washington Fenwick presented a paper on the history of the Patent Office. [footnote 6] Mr. Fenwick's uncle, Benjamin Fenwick, was the messenger of the Patent Office from 1816 to about 1819, and he was succeeded by Mr. Fenwick's father, Robert Welsh Fenwick. Mr. Fenwick noted: "It is an interesting fact to relate that in these early days a single pony was kept by the Government for the use of the Patent Office, and that the messenger or clerk rode this pony when he went to the State Department to have the patents signed by the Secretary of State and other officials." The other officials included the Attorney General and the President of the United States. The Fenwick boys would have visited the President to get patents signed.

This single pony for the use of the Patent Office is symbolic of two things. First, the primitive state of the country and of the Patent Office at the time, where the quickest way to deliver messages around the city of Washington was by a boy on a pony. Second, riding the Patent Office pony can be taken as a metaphor for working in the Patent Office, which has been done by many hundreds of people for many generations.

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