History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 8 -- Dr. Thornton Takes Charge

[Pg 42]

Because of the 1836 burning of the Patent Office, all that remains to tell us what happened in the early days is in scattered records that were held outside the Patent Office. As a result, some things can be seen well, some poorly, and some not at all.

Dr. William Thornton sent a letter from the Patent Office on June 9, 1803, to John Reid in which Dr. Thornton acknowledged receipt of papers and models for a patent application for an invention by John's brother James Reid for screwing and packing cotton. [footnote 1] Dr. Thornton agreed that John Reid would serve as his brother's agent for attending to the patent application. In 1807, Dr. Thornton had further correspondence with John Reid to suggest that his brother James should promptly execute a proper application for the patent, [footnote 2] the papers on hand being treated merely as a caveat. Caveats at this time were part of an informal procedure by which a person could file incomplete papers in the Patent Office to describe his invention while he perfected his invention. If a patent application for a similar invention was filed, the Patent Office would give notice to perfect the filing for purposes of an interference arbitration. An application for a similar invention had been filed by Richard and John Thorne, and Dr. Thornton thought the application should be perfected so that an interference could be declared and arbitrated. In further correspondence, it developed that James Reid had been in the Navy in the Mediterranean when the patent application was filed and had not returned to the United States in four years. The surviving correspondence with John Reid ends here, but James Reid never received a patent, while Richard and John Thorne received a patent for a cotton press in 1810.

[Page 42 illustration: Portrait of William C.C. Claiborne]

William C.C. Claiborne, formerly a congressman from Tennessee and the appointed Governor of the Territory of Mississippi, wrote a letter to Dr. Thornton on October 1, 1804, introducing Pierre Derbigny. [footnote 3] Mr. Derbigny was to deliver a little box containing a model of a new cotton machine for which the inventor, Obadiah Crawford, who was a citizen of the Mississippi Territory, solicited a patent. While Governor Claiborne stated that he was not personally acquainted with Mr. Crawford, it appears [Pg 43] that he was acting as agent, and he requested that if the patent were granted, it should be forwarded to himself.

[Page 43 illustration: Portrait of E. I. Du Pont]

The first two records thus indicate that inventors prosecuted their patent applications through agents from an early date, and that the agent could be as close as the inventor's brother, or as highly placed as a territorial governor and former congressman. Indeed, it appears that many patent applications were brought to Washington and filed by congressmen for their constituents, although whether they usually received a fee or settled for votes is not apparent.

Dr. Thornton was also charged at an early date with registering copyrights. In 1804, he gave a certificate to William Pelham, [footnote 4] certifying that he had deposited with the State Department a copy of his publication Letters from London, in accordance with the copyright law.

The next reference we have to Dr. Thornton's work in the Patent Office relates to a patent which founded an American industry. In October 1804, EleuthŐre Irénée du Pont de Nemours applied for a patent for a method of automating the granulating and sieving of gunpowder. [footnote 5] Mr. du Pont had established a factory near Wilmington, Delaware, to manufacture gunpowder by the best processes then known in Europe.

He recognized that the high cost of labor in the United States had always been a cause of discouragement of factories here, and recognized, as did generations of inventors after him, the uniquely American necessity of labor-saving inventions. In Europe, workmen were available in excess, and a working man had difficulty making enough by his work to support himself and his family. Thus wages were low, and thus men were cheaper than machines. Because working men were worried about keeping what work they had, they would fight the introduction of new labor-saving machines. But in the United States, there were few available working men and vast natural resources to harness. Any man capable of doing any work had a variety of options available and was generally not worried about labor-saving machines putting him out of work. The climate was favorable here for labor-saving inventions.

Mr. du Pont had invented a way to automate the granulating and sieving of gunpowder, and he was applying for a patent on his invention. One of his [Pg 44] machines would do the work of six men, and he had erected four such machines, all of which could be kept in constant operation with the attendance of one man. The invention enabled the expansion of the du Pont gunpowder works, which later became the du Pont chemical empire. The patent application was written in French with an accompanying English translation. Peter Bauduy was handling Mr. du Pont's correspondence, perhaps as a secretary or associate of some type, perhaps another person acting as patent agent. In his reply to Mr. Bauduy, Dr. Thornton showed his wide range of interests by mentioning that he had written a dissertation on the manufacture of gunpowder, which he wished to send to Mr. Bauduy. [footnote 6]

[Page 44 illustration: Portrait of Benjamin H. Latrobe]

William Thornton was a friend from his Philadelphia days of Charles Willson Peale, the artist and the father of artists. In April 1805, Mr. Peale wrote Dr. Thornton to request a certified copy of a patent issued to John J. Hawkins in which Mr. Peale had an interest. The patent related to a physiognotrace and polygraph (apparently a device for tracing silhouettes), and Peale needed the certified copy to bring suit against a person who was making the device without authority. John J. Hawkins had been in England, where he sold patent rights to the polygraph and drawing machine for 1,600 guineas. Mr. Peale also wrote to Dr. Thornton in May 1805 to record an assignment of the Hawkins invention to Mr. Peale for the City of Philadelphia. It was common in the earlier days of the patent system to assign inventions by states, counties and cities. [footnote 7]

Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the successors to Dr. Thornton as Architect of the Capitol, and co-shareholder with him in a gold mine venture, wrote to Thornton in February 1806, applying for a patent for a new method of constructing stone bridges. [footnote 8] Latrobe stated that he had first used this method to build a bridge 15 years earlier. He applied for a patent at this late date only because he had submitted a plan for building a bridge by this method near Philadelphia, which was turned down, and others had later proposed to build two nearby bridges using his method. "Otherwise I should never have thought of obtaining a patent." There is no record in the list of issued patents that Mr. Latrobe ever received a patent for the invention, but it would not have been refused merely because it had been in use for 15 years. [Pg 45] Dr. Thornton had no authority under the Act of 1793 to refuse patents even if copied without modification from patents previously issued to others.

On January 1, 1807, Secretary of State James Madison made a report to Congress, stating that the business relating to patents issued for useful arts had increased at the rate of doubling in four years. He recommended employment of an additional clerk. [footnote 9] He wrote that in 1806 William Thornton had been employed "in superintending and issuing patents for useful inventions and discoveries, in securing copyrights, etc." at an annual compensation of $1,400.

[Page 45 illustration: Portrait of William Plumer]

Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire kept a diary of events concerning his one term in office from 1803 to 1809. It is fairly clear that he did not like Dr. Thornton. He accused Thornton of superintending the finishing of the north wing of the Capitol in a such a shameful manner that he was deserving of censure, because the Capitol was constantly leaking and the walls in danger of falling. In fact, Dr. Thornton never supervised construction of the Capitol, although he did work closely with at least one of the many architects involved over the years during which he was a Commissioner of the Federal City. In the continuous battle between the successive Architects of the Capitol, Dr. Thornton's name did not escape without insult. On January 3, 1807, Senator Plumer visited Dr. Thornton in his office, not on patent business, but in connection with Dr. Thornton's secondary office as justice of the peace for Washington. It is clear that Senator Plumer was not impressed by Dr. Thornton or his office.

He wrote in his diary for that day: "This Justice Thornton is the keeper of the Patent office -- who records all those inventions, and titles of books for whom patents and certificates of copyrights do issue. With him a set or volume of each book is lodged, and the model or drawing of each piece of mechanism, for which a patent has issued. His office is a room in the same building in which the War and Post office is kept. The floor and shelves are covered with models thrown together without any order or regularity. The books lie in an irregular confused pile on shelves and window stools covered with dust. The room is too small for the purpose; but a little money and labour would procure a convenient and useful book case and arrange the models and drawing in order. This Dr. Thornton ought to do -- he has too long been guilty of great negligence."
[Pg 46]
It should be noted that Senator Plumer did nothing to get Congress to provide Dr. Thornton with "a little money" to carry out his proposal, nor did he provide the clerk just recommended by the Secretary of State to provide the necessary labor to do more than just keep up with the doubling of patent applications in the four years of Dr. Thornton's stay in office. [footnote 10]

Dr. Thornton seems to have spent his spare time for most of his Patent Office career in writing letters to the Secretary of State and to Congress complaining of the poor way he was treated and the condition of the Patent Office. On November 27, 1807, Dr. Thornton wrote to Secretary of State James Madison to express dissatisfaction with his condition in the Patent Office. [footnote 11] He stated that he had troubled the Secretary often on the subject of patents without meeting with any encouragement. He claimed that the room which he then occupied was admitted by all to be inadequate. The Patent Office in Paris was said to have three rooms each as large as the whole Executive Office, and three directors with good salaries to superintend it, so important was it considered to be to the national prosperity. Dr. Thornton said that when he was engaged, he was expected only to superintend the granting of Patents and to carry on the necessary correspondence, etc., but by the time of this letter, when the patents were more than double in number, he was obliged not only to do these duties but also to write out the specifications in the issued patents, and to be the keeper of a museum. He requested an increase in salary to $2,000, a correspondence clerk, a proper office, an attendant, and the power of franking correspondence. A proper office was considered necessary for the full display of the models, and Thornton recommended that a house large enough for the purpose be rented at a cost of about $500 per year. The attendant would be necessary to preserve the models, keep them clean and in order, make fires, and serve as messenger. Dr. Thornton considered that the institution would support itself and produce a surplus.

[Page 46 illustration: Portrait of Oliver Evans]

Remember Oliver Evans, the holder of the third U.S. patent granted under the Act of 1790. Mr. Evans' patent was for an improvement in the art of manufacturing flour and meal, granted December 18, 1790. The patent had been drawn up in the usual form of patents issued under that act, and expired in the usual 14 years, in 1804. Mr. Evans filed a petition for the extension of his [Pg 47] patent rights, which was considered by a committee of the House of Representatives on December 7, 1807, after the patent had already been expired for nearly three years. [footnote 12]

Mr. Evans said that when his patent was infringed, he brought an action in the circuit court for the Pennsylvania district, where the court decided that the description given of his invention in the patent was insufficient, and his patent was therefore void. Since the sum in controversy did not amount to $2,000, he had no right of appeal to the Supreme Court. He petitioned Congress to grant him a good patent, and the committee understood that the only deficiency in the patent was a matter of form. Apparently, all patents were issued in the same form from 1790 until the passage of the 1793 act. Were all patents issued under the 1790 act invalid, based upon the decision of the Pennsylvania court with no appeal allowed? Mr. Evans had given a complete description of his invention in his petition to the Secretary of State in 1790, but, as a matter of form, the Secretary had not had the complete description incorporated into the patent as issued. Thus, it appears that the Pennsylvania court had found the patent invalid, not from any fault of Mr. Evans, but because the government was not incorporating the proper information available to it into the issued patent. When the committee asked the opinion of the Secretary of State, he was unwilling to recognize the invalidity of all issued patents based upon one unappealable court decision.

Oliver Evans' patent was extended by Congress, beginning a practice that continued for many years.

On April 11, 1808, New York Congressman Stephen Thorn wrote to Secretary of State James Madison [footnote 13] inquiring, more or less in the nature of a patent agent, about an application filed by his neighbor Jacob Coon for a machine for dressing timbers for wagon and carriage wheels. The practice of Congressmen representing inventors from their districts, and possibly from elsewhere, was also to continue for many years.

On August 26, 1808, William Thornton wrote to Jacob Cist [footnote 14] of Philadelphia on a possible priority conflict between Cist and a Mr. Pike of Philadelphia. Mr. Pike had ceded priority to Mr. Cist. The invention related to a finely grindable material which could be used as black printing ink. On October 28, 1808, Dr. Thornton wrote Mr. Cist [footnote 15] regarding the delay in issuing a patent to Cist. Among other delays, Dr. Thornton had to await the signatures of the Attorney General, the President and the Secretary of State. Then he became ill and was confined to his bed for nearly a week, and to the house still longer. He also pointed out that in 1808 the post from Washington to Philadelphia only went out once a week. Dr. Thornton said that he thought the black pigment could make a fine Japan when used with varnish, [Pg 48] and he proposed to add it to Mr. Cist's specification. It appears that Dr. Thornton paid the cost of getting the patent in exchange for an interest in it. Ethics for Government Employees was a very short course in those days.

[Page 48 illustration: Portrait of Jacob Cist]

On December 31, 1808, Thornton wrote again to Jacob Cist, [footnote 16] concerning the pigment patent. Mr. Cist had complained that the patent would have been better if the specification had been written in accordance with the specification submitted by the inventor, instead of as revised by Thornton. Thornton stated that he would alter any patent if he had made changes to the specification that the inventor did not agree with. He also stated that the same kind of coal, apparently meaning the coal which would be ground up for the pigment, had been found in Rhode Island, and suggested that it be included in the specification. The prohibition against introducing new matter into a patent application had not yet appeared.

On June 3, 1809, Thornton wrote again from Washington to Jacob Cist, [footnote 17] the ink inventor, stating that he had written to Mr. Perigrine Williamson, the inventor of steel writing pens with three slits, suggesting use of Mr. Cist's ink to prevent corrosion of the pens.

On September 1, 1809, Thornton wrote from Washington to Jacob Cist about the black ink. [footnote 18] Mr. Cist had asked Dr. Thornton what he valued his share at, presumably a share of the patent on the black ink. Thornton asked Cist for his aid in valuing his share. Thornton also mentioned that he had applied to the Navy Office, apparently in an attempt to sell the ink or to have it approved for Navy use. Thornton thought it more useful as printer's ink than as anything else.

William Thornton enjoyed his farm in what is now Bethesda. He kept some of his race horses there, and spent as much time there as possible. On December 17, 1808, he wrote to Secretary of State James Madison from the farm. [footnote 19] He said that he did not wish his reasons for visiting his farm at present to be generally known but felt that he must inform the Secretary of the reason. He had been very unfortunate in the recovery of debts due to him and had lost many thousands of dollars in the hands of persons whom he trusted. He had also become bail bondsman for Samuel Blodgett, the builder of Blodgett's Hotel, who was being held for debt, and when Blodgett fled, Thornton remained responsible for more than $10,000. He said he had recently [Pg 49] sold the only house he had in Lancaster, England, to pay debts. He had attempted to mortgage his farm. He had received no money from his property in the West Indies for two years. He retired to the country until the court met, which required him to stay at his farm for a week longer. He had brought patent applications to his farm to write up on parchment for patents. He said he would issue 160 patents by the end of the year, which would amount to four times as many per year as when he first accepted the duties. He also said that he was unwell both in body and in mind when he came to the farm, and was not well at present.

On May 7, 1810, Thornton wrote from his farm to Thomas Jefferson, commenting that he was at his farm for two or three days, for the first time in six months. [footnote 20] He indicated that his work had increased sixfold since taking the job, having issued 219 patents the previous year. He said that he was without any assistant, except when he hired one at his own expense. He thought some of the inventions did honor to the country.

[Page 49 illustration: State Department, Washington, D.C., Home of the Patent Office, 1801-1810]

Go to top page of Patent Office history material