History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 7 -- The Government Moves to Washington

[Pg 39]

The infant federal government decided about 1791, in a political compromise, to move the federal capital south from Philadelphia. The Constitution allowed states to cede land to the federal government for use as the seat of government. A district was chosen, near the fall line of the Potomac River, which included the settlements at Georgetown, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia, as well as large areas of farm land and a generous allotment of swamps. The move was delayed for years, to allow time to erect some buildings in this wilderness for use by the federal government. Three Commissioners for the Federal City were appointed to superintend the initial building, allotment of land, and government of the federal district.

[Page 39 illustration: Portrait of William Thornton]

The Commissioners for the Federal City announced, on March 14, 1792, a competition for plans for the Capitol and the President's House. Plans by James Hoban for the President's House were accepted. Although numerous plans were submitted for the Capitol, all were objectionable. From Tortola in the British Virgin Islands came a letter from Dr. William Thornton (1761-1828), the same Dr. Thornton who had worked with John Fitch to develop the steamboat. Thornton was born on Tortola, but was raised by his Quaker grandmother and maiden aunts in Lancaster, England, and educated as a medical doctor in Scotland. He had come to America in 1787 and became a citizen of Delaware in 1788. He married Anna Maria Brodeau of Philadelphia in 1790. He was on an extended stay in Tortola with his bride when he wrote to the Commissioners in October 1792, asking permission to submit drawings for the Capitol. His plan won the competition and formed the basis for the plans for the Capitol. The prize was $500 and a lot having a value of £100. He set up medical practice in Philadelphia and made his first visit to the federal district in March 1793, with a letter of introduction from President Washington. He declined to supervise the construction of the Capitol because of the time involved. Since Dr. Thornton had absolutely no formal training or hands-on experience as a supervising architect, he may have felt incapable; however, considering the number of fields that he dabbled in over his lifetime, he probably did not feel incapable of anything. [footnote 1]
[Pg 40]
[Page 40 illustration: Portrait of Samuel Blodgett]

Washington, in 1793, was a "city" of about 300 residents, most of them speculating on the future of the proposed new capital city. One of them, Samuel Blodgett Jr., a native of New Hampshire and a Revolutionary War officer, had made a fortune in the East India trade and hoped to increase it in Washington. He promoted a lottery to advance his real-estate interests and offered a "Great Hotel" worth $50,000 as first prize. He built Blodgett's Hotel as the prize but did not finish it before he went bankrupt. Little is known of the early use of the partially completed structure except that some public meetings were held there. Meanwhile, the emerging city made do with the "Little Hotel" at Rhodes Tavern. [footnote 2]

A new set of Commissioners for the Federal City was appointed in 1794. Dr. Thornton was appointed a commissioner on September 2, 1794. His colleagues as city commissioners were Gustavus Scott and Alexander White. Dr. Thornton lived for a while in Georgetown, on what was then called Falls Street, but was more recently successively given the address 3221 Bridge Street and 3221 M Street. Since the name of the federal district was not yet settled, and Georgetown was no longer in Maryland, he sometimes gave his address as George Town, Columbia, and at other times as George Town, Potomac. In 1796 or 1797, he moved to Washington proper. He bought a city lot from Samuel Blodgett, probably complete with house, and he lived the rest of his life at what would become 1331 F Street, Washington. [footnote 3]

Dr. Thornton also purchased a farm, slightly larger than one square mile, on both sides of the road from Georgetown to Montgomery Courthouse (now Rockville), Maryland, located in what is now downtown Bethesda. He called it Park Grove, and it had a frame dwelling of one and a half stories, with two rooms on the lower floor and one on the upper floor. He also had a city garden located at the southeast corner of New York Avenue and Eighteenth Street, including twelve city lots, near the present Corcoran Gallery, for growing food for the table. He also had a 56-acre farm at Kalorama, just south of the present site of the National Zoological Park, where the Belmont Apartments now stand, for grazing his horses. He needed grazing land, because he and his next-door neighbor after 1800, Secretary of State James Madison, maintained a large stock of race horses and once started a racetrack to practice their hobby. [footnote 4]
[Pg 41]
After the preliminary work of setting up the seat of government had been done, the Government moved from Philadelphia to Washington in June 1800. The State Department had eight employees, and it was first crowded into a building erected for the Treasury Department. It is said, on unclear authority, that the State Department was moved temporarily by August 27 to one of the "Six Buildings," a group of buildings located from what is now 2107 to 2117 Pennsylvania Avenue. Numbered addresses did not come along for many years. By the end of 1800, the State Department was located at what is now 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue, where it remained until the building was burned in 1814. [footnote 5]

As the federal government moved to the new city, a theater company from Philadelphia arrived to present a play at Blodgett's Hotel on August 22, 1800. A room was fitted up for public performances, and the United States Theater presented Venice Preserved, or the Spoiled Child. The theater was permanently closed in less than a month. [footnote 6]

When Washington was chartered by Congress as a city with its own government on May 3, 1802, Thornton's appointment as Commissioner of the Federal City expired, and he needed a new job. [footnote 7] Although he once had a large private income, it was decreasing by this time. His job as Commissioner had paid $2,000 a year. Secretary Madison knew the State Department was then receiving more patent applications than could conveniently be handled by its other clerks. He thought Thornton could be in charge of the patent work. The total receipts for patent work were then about $1,400 a year, so he offered Dr. Thornton that sum as a salary, probably about May 12, 1802. The first record of Dr. Thornton's employment in the State Department indicates that he was paid for services rendered from June 1, 1802, to December 31, 1802. [footnote 8]

It is hard to look back and say exactly when a United States Patent Office, as opposed to a patent system, began. It did not begin with the passage of the Act of 1790, nor with operations under that act. Assigning three cabinet officers the duties of determining what patents should be issued did not establish an office dedicated to granting patents. Nor did it begin with the Act of 1793, under which various State Department clerks shared the work of engrossing patents between their diplomatic duties. But it is arguable that on June 1, 1802, with the appointment of a clerk whose entire and full-time job was superintending the issuance of patents, a United States Patent Office began. A small beginning, one clerk in one crowded room in a building devoted not only to the State Department but other departments as well, with no assistance and very little control over his own office -- but a beginning.

And in late 1802, Daniel Brent was paid $22 for hay for the office pony. [footnote 9]

Go to top page of Patent Office history material