History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 10 -- The Patent Office Finds a Home of its Own
THE PATENT OFFICE FINDS A HOME OF ITS OWN
By the Act of April 28, 1810, [footnote 1] Congress authorized the President to purchase a building suitable for use by the Patent Office and the General Post Office. President James Madison exercised this authority by buying Blodgett's Hotel, begun in 1793 by Samuel Blodgett and then still unfinished. The building and surrounding lots were purchased or ten thousand dollars from Robert S. Bickley, [footnote 2] who had won them in Blodgett's lottery. [footnote 3] Blodgett's Hotel was located on the north side of E street N.W., between what would become 7th and 8th streets. A block north was the Ridge, or F street, which was the main highway from Georgetown to Upper Marlboro.
On June 12, 1810, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect, wrote to Secretary of State Robert Smith, indicating that he had examined the building and was offering his report. [footnote 4] All of the internal and external walls of the building were finished and were considered of excellent material and workmanship. The only deficiency was that the stacks of the south chimney were not carried through the roof. The floors consisted only of joists, which were of inferior quality. Some joists had apparently been removed for use as firewood by the squatters who had been living in the cellar of the building. The roof was tight and needed only to be filled in where the south chimney would be taken through. Sashes and window frames were on hand for most of the windows, although all the glass had been destroyed.
[Page 58 illustration: Blodgett's Hotel (1810-1829]
Latrobe recommended that the building first be cleared of the three families that inhabited the cellars and one room at the west end of the ground floor. They kept hogs, and committed nuisances in the house which rendered it [Pg 59] offensive in the highest degree, apparently Latrobe's euphemism for the use of the inside of the building as a privy for the inhabitants. He understood that the families were not so indigent as to require assistance, and, in fact, that they were all related and one of them owned valuable tracts of land in the city. After the families were removed, Latrobe recommended fencing the lots in the rear and on the east end to prevent further squatters. Then the land should be ditched and drained to prevent rainwater gathering in the cellars, and the cellars should be cleaned of the filth collected in them.
Latrobe recommended that the Patent Office be given the northwest corner room on the ground floor (a small room close to the west room) for the messenger. The southwest room on the first floor (which Americans would now call the second floor) would be used as an office for the Superintendent of the Patent Office, and the large room extending from the north to the south front through the center of the building would be used for the exhibition room and deposit of models. To render the latter rooms acceptable, it would be necessary to floor the ground story as far as the staircase, to carry the flooring up the stairs, and to floor the passage above.
He suggested this plan in preference to one proposed by Thornton, because it preserved the whole of the east end of the building, which had separate stairs, for the use of another public office which might also use the building, and it reserved the south room at the east end for such office. Otherwise, if the whole south front were occupied by the Patent Office, only the inferior north rooms would remain for a future establishment. Another objection to Thornton's plan was that it required a long common passage from east to west through the whole building. Thus, the center of the building would be lost to every other use, to the great annoyance of all occupants
Latrobe proposed to floor and counterfloor the northwest corner room, the passage above stairs, the whole of the center of the house upstairs, and the southwest room. He would support the floor of the exhibition room by eight columns, and would support the ceiling of the exhibition room in the same way. He would then put in the windows and wall up behind three superfluous windows on the west front. He would put in a plain wide staircase from the ground floor to the first floor and frame and put in all doors. He would carry the chimney stacks on the south front through the roof and make the roof good around them. He would put in baseboards and plaster the rooms. Lastly, he would put a framed privy in the yard
He estimated that it would cost $1,820 to do the work, but recommended some latitude be included, and $2,250 be considered the upper limit of the estimate. This did not include any shutters, cases for books or models, grates or stoves, or any other form of furniture.
[Page 60 illustration: Portrait of Robert Smith]
On September 3, 1810, Benjamin Henry Latrobe wrote to William Thornton, indicating that the new Patent Office was then so far finished that models might be moved there without inconvenience. [footnote 5] Latrobe suggested the following September 6 as the day when Thornton could take possession of the new office. He said that the messenger's room below and the southwest room upstairs were furnished as well as the available funds would admit. The southwest room would hold all of the models then in the Patent Office, although not arranged in order, and they could be taken from there into the model exhibition room when that room was finished. The Secretary of State apparently wanted the space then used by the Patent Office evacuated that week. Latrobe wrote that the model exhibition room would be completed when Thornton told a Mr. Lenox (apparently a cabinetmaker) his ideas as to the kinds of cases or shelves he wanted, and when the Secretary of State arranged to fund the work. Latrobe suggested that a person be appointed to sleep in the building, and that if appointment of a messenger were to be necessary, Thornton should immediately approach the Secretary.
In the same letter, Mr. Latrobe indicated that he was preparing a patent application for Mr. Samuel Blydenburgh for a loom, which would soon be transmitted to the Patent Office. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, noted architect, was also a part-time patent agent.
On September 5, Latrobe wrote to Secretary of State Robert Smith, [footnote 6] stating that the sum of $240 would be necessary to make and put up the stands and cases for models in the new Patent Office. Without this furniture, he predicted that much confusion and destruction of the models would take place. In December, Latrobe wrote Thornton concerning the finishing work for two model cases that had been installed and suggesting that Thornton should have a closed case in his office as the most convenient means of keeping private papers out of sight.
Dr. Thornton set out to make his life easier by getting the government to employ a messenger for the Patent Office. He wrote to Secretary Smith about the condition of the Patent Office. [footnote 7] He began by discussing the extensive nature of the patent departments of France and England, and harking back to the time when the U.S. patent system was considered sufficiently important to claim the joint attention of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and [Pg 61] the Attorney General of the United States to fulfill a duty that was thought to require more discrimination and judgment than time or labor.
He indicated that when a patent was demanded, he was in the habit of doing a cautious examination of all that had been done in the same line before the receipt of the application. He said that the examination could not be satisfied by indices, nor by models, nor even always by referring to the papers and drawings, because it required an understanding of underlying principles. These principles are not always comprehended by ingenious but unlettered mechanics. He recognized that these examinations were not required by law and were more duties of conscience than of office. He knew that his resulting cautions were often not received with thanks by the applicants, but he considered it proper to guard against deceptions, in which inventors may begin by deceiving themselves as to the originality of their inventions, and end by deceiving their fellow citizens. He could not refuse a patent for lack of novelty, but could point out that lack.
He wrote that the duties of the office also included particular attention to the necessary forms of patents. In consequence of a defect in the forms, many of the patents issued during the last century were set aside in the courts of law. Where applications appear to involve the same principles, reference must be made to arbitrators to decide on the priority of the invention. He also paid attention to the state of the papers and drawings to endeavor to render them worthy of the archives of a great people. All these duties require a large and difficult correspondence. Books were to be kept which register all these, and the books that are published in the United States are sent to be entered in the Patent Office, each of which requires a certificate. He said that the work had become so extensive that he had been obliged to hire an assistant from his private purse before the Secretary of State furnished him with an assistant. He also said that notwithstanding the large number of patents which he was obliged to prepare for issue, the patents which he issued gave him less trouble than those he refused.
He said that many of the members of Congress had witnessed the astonishing inventions of our countrymen, and that Congress, finding so many valuable models sent to illustrate the inventions which now enrich the Depository of the Arts, had purchased a spacious building for their accommodation. Thornton then got to what was apparently the purpose of his letter and suggested engaging a doorkeeper or messenger, who would also attend to the building and take care of the museum.
In December 1810, Secretary Smith wrote to John W. Eppes [footnote 8] concerning the pay for clerks employed in the Department of State. He said that Dr. Thornton, who superintends the issuing of patents for useful inventions, [Pg 62] had said that there was too much work for one man to do in the timely fashion expected by patent applicants. Smith decided to postpone temporarily the replacement of a clerk who had resigned in order to have funds to hire an assistant in the Patent Office, and also to continue paying Dr. Thornton the $2,000 per year that he had been allowed the previous year. Smith said that this arrangement was temporary and would cease at the end of the year.
Smith said that William Thornton had a salary of $1,400 for superintending the issuing of patents for useful inventions, and carrying on all the correspondence incident thereto. George Lyon received a salary of $500 for performing those duties in the Patent Office that were assigned to him by Dr. Thornton.
In March 1811, William Thornton wrote a set of instructions for obtaining patents, which he published in the National Intelligencer newspaper. [footnote 9] These instructions were to enable many inventors to avoid long journeys to the seat of government. He was impressed with the idea that no nation on earth surpassed his countrymen in genius. Even the unlettered inhabitants of the forest had perfected inventions that would have done honor to Archimedes.
He suggested an examination of publications to ascertain if an invention were new and an inquiry of scientific experts to ascertain if it were practicable. The signatures of the President, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General on a patent should not be taken as evidence of novelty or utility. Before the organization of the patent system, the mysteries of a profession were withheld from the beginner, and many valuable secrets had been buried with their inventors. A patent is evidence that the inventor has disclosed his secret to the public and declares a right to prevent infringement, but only a jury can determine if others have infringed a protected right.
The instructions noted that the law formerly provided that only citizens could obtain patents, but a later law allowed for applicants who had resided two years in the United States but were not citizens.
Before the inventor presented his petition for a patent to the Secretary of State, he was required to pay into the Treasury of the United States $30 in notes of any of the state banks, for which he was furnished with duplicate receipts, one of which he delivered to the Secretary when presenting his petition. This money paid in full for the services of the office. The instructions gave the form of the petition and the requirements of the specification, which was required to be signed by the applicant before two witnesses. Thornton noted that the original papers were to be deposited in an office that will hand them down to posterity, so attention should be a matter of honor. The form of the oath or affirmation was given. The requirement for a good drawing, samples of ingredients, and a model of a machine, when [Pg 63] appropriate, was set out. Thornton explained that: "Many will plead ignorance of drawings who cannot avoid the conviction of wheels and pinions," thus making a model necessary. The drawings ought not to exceed a quarto size, and if confined to octavo, it would be still better.
Because draftsmen were not readily available in many parts of the country, Thornton gave the names and addresses of eighteen of the best artists that he had noted around the country. Dr. Thornton noted that papers might all be mailed to the Secretary of State to render them free of postage, but when models were sent, their freight to the Patent Office had to be prepaid. Before packing a model, the name of the inventor was be written on it, with the name of the machine, and the date. Sometimes, when models were received, it was difficult to know what application they related to.
The Congress, said Thornton, was so impressed with a high sense of the value of the inventions of our citizens that they purchased an "elegant and extensive building, wherein preparations are now being made for the accommodation of a very numerous collection" of models. This museum of the arts, he presumed, would stimulate the ingenious to send the models of their machines and inventions in a style that will rather honor than discredit our country. Thornton also gave instructions for securing copyrights of books, etc., by delivering a copy to the Secretary of State.
George Lyon was the first assistant ever hired for Dr. Thornton. He was appointed a clerk in June 1810, at a salary of $500 per year, even before the Patent Office moved to Blodgett's Hotel, although it is not certain that he was immediately assigned to patent duties. [footnote 10] For many months after his appointment, George Lyon hired a messenger for the Patent Office at his own expense at a cost of $4 per month. On April 1, 1811, the State Department stopped paying George Lyon his salary but did not fire him. In the early spring of 1812, Lyon was heard to complain that he had not been paid for nine months. Finally, Congress passed a private act in August 1813 for the relief of George Lyon to pay him his back salary. [footnote 11] George Lyon continued to work at the Patent Office almost until his death in 1817. [footnote 12]
Thomas Nicholson, carpenter, age 26, of Mecklenburg, Virginia, enlisted in the Army Ordnance Corps for five years [footnote 13] in August 1812. By December 1812, he was attached to the Patent Office, where he remained until May 1816. He seems to have been paid $250 per year [footnote 14] by the State Department. After returning to the Army, while still living in Washington, he obtained a patent of his own on an improved pump in April 1817. [footnote 15] Superintendent Thornton referred to Thomas Nicholson as his model-maker and messenger. [footnote 16]
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