History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 13 -- Superintendent Thomas P. Jones, M.D.

[Pg 80]

The early history of Thomas P. Jones (1774-1848) is only vaguely known. He was probably born in Herefordshire, England, and was trained there as a physician. He was living in Philadelphia as early as 1796, having possibly emigrated with Joseph Priestly. By 1796, he was a member of a Unitarian congregation in Philadelphia founded by Priestly. Soon afterwards, he probably lived in New Bern, North Carolina. He delivered a series of scientific lectures in Albany, New York, and, by 1811, in Philadelphia. From 1814 to 1817, he was professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the College of William and Mary. He resigned in 1817, with a public dinner given in his honor by his students, though possibly after an affray with a town person. Precisely who had the affray, or even if Professor Jones was involved, is not clear. [footnote 1]

He returned to Philadelphia in 1818 and resumed his course of technical lectures, including experimental lectures given at Charles Willson Peale's American Museum in the place of those previously given by C. W. Peale's son Reubens Peale. His assistant, slide-handler, and literally bottle washer during the museum lectures was C. W. Peale's grandson, who else, George Escol Sellers. He then left Philadelphia to run a school at Oxford, North Carolina. When the Franklin Institute was founded in February 1825, Dr. Jones was invited to return to Philadelphia to become its Professor of Mechanics and Natural Philosophy and editor of its journal, which he accepted in March of that year. [footnote 2]

He returned in June and bought out the already existing American Mechanic's Magazine, which seems to have been a purchase of its subscription list and the right to continue its publication. This he published as the Franklin Journal and American Mechanic's Magazine, entirely at his own expense, or at least at no expense to the Franklin Institute. The effort of Peter A. Browne, mentioned earlier, to obtain access to patent specifications of unexpired patents was done to allow their publication in Dr. Jones' journal. In late 1827, Dr. Jones was offered a position on the faculty of the new University of Virginia. The Franklin Institute, concerned that he might accept, bought the rights to the journal from him, while giving him lifetime tenure as its editor. For whatever reason, he did not take the new faculty position.

Upon the death of William Thornton on March 28, 1828, there was a search for a new Superintendent of the Patent Office. According to a letter from Robert Peters of Philadelphia to Martin Van Buren, [footnote 3] Henry Clay had offered the position to a gentleman who refused it. That gentleman was [Pg 81] Hezekiah Niles of Baltimore, who was offered the position on March 29. [footnote 4] Peters then recommended Dr. Jones to Clay, who appointed Jones to the position on April 12, 1828. This appointment came as a severe disappointment to William Elliot, who had expected that he would be appointed to the position, [footnote 5] and indeed he had a friend file a recommendation on his behalf on the day of Thornton's death. [footnote 6] Elliot wrote to apply for the position three days later. [footnote 7]

[Page 81 illustration: Portrait of Thomas P. Jones]

In announcing his removal to Washington, Dr. Jones announced that the journal would benefit from his new position. He said: "The Repertory of Patent Inventions, The London Journal of Arts and Sciences, and The Register of Arts and Patent Inventions published in London, are principally devoted to the patents of Great Britain, whilst the more numerous patented inventions of this country have remained almost entirely unknown. When the Franklin Journal was first established, it was intended, among other objects, as may be seen by the prospectus in the first number, to embrace the patents of our own country, and several of them have been published accordingly; but the difficulty of making a proper selection, whilst the Editor resided in Philadelphia, was such as to preclude their frequent appearance; his present station is in this particular most eligible, and his determination is to turn this circumstance to good account. The list of American patents will hereafter appear regularly, so as to embrace, in each number, those obtained in the course of a month." [footnote 8] After some difficulty in publishing the journal while moving, he succeeded for the first time in publishing a notice of all patents and a more detailed description of all important U.S. patents soon after they issued.

Dr. Jones came into the Patent Office intending to run the office his own way. He remained in the office after usual business hours, going over the recently issued patents, copying out interesting information from them, and using that information in his journal. He opened all incoming mail himself, without any assistance from the clerks in the office. Dr. Thornton had not done things this way. By October 1828, William Elliot had written a letter to the Secretary of State, complaining that Dr. Jones was impeding the work of the office by insisting upon opening all mail himself, with the result that, on days when Dr. Jones was absent, no mail was opened. [footnote 9] In March 1829, [Pg 82] immediately after the inauguration of Andrew Jackson as President, with the promise of wide-spread removal of civil-service incumbents from office, William Elliot filed charges against Dr. Jones, beginning a full-scale frontal attack. [footnote 10]

Thomas P. Jones sent Secretary of State Martin Van Buren his response to Elliot's charges in May 1829. [footnote 11] There were many grounds for William Elliot's complaints against Thomas P. Jones, but the principal reasons, although unstated, were two. William Elliot did not like it because the Superintendent was not William Thornton, and, most important, William Elliot did not like it because the Superintendent was not William Elliot. William Elliot had his son Seth Alfred Elliot employed at the Patent Office, although not by the Patent Office, making copies for the public at 20 cents per 100 words. William Elliot referred applicants who needed their applications written to his son John Elliot, who made out their specifications. The Elliot family had a good thing going at the Patent Office, sort of a family business. Dr. Jones came in and interfered with that business.

Jones wrote out his own copies of patents for his journal, despite Seth's offer to assist him. When unlettered and indigent persons came into the office seeking a patent, Dr. Jones would frequently write their specifications out for them on the spot, without charge, depriving William Elliot of opportunities to direct the applicants to his son John. Dr. Jones also said that he had written half a dozen specifications at his home for people who came to him because of their special trust in his ability. In response to Elliot's charge, he admitted that he received money for doing so. He claimed he tried to avoid it, not because he felt it was at all improper, but because he was too busy to devote time to writing patent applications. He said that at the request of applicants, he had drawings made for them by persons unconnected with the office at the lowest available price.

Elliot noted that during Dr. Thornton's tenure, many parties had sent presents of money to the Superintendent, and that all letters were opened in the clerk's room, where the gifts of money were removed and returned to the sender. He complained that Dr. Jones opened all letters sent to the Patent Office in private and that little or no money had been returned during Dr. Jones' tenure. Jones replied that he had yet to learn that it was his duty to open letters addressed to him in the presence of his clerks to keep him honest. He did not doubt that less money was sent as presents now than formerly, but he did not desire to discuss the probable reasons.

Elliot observed that Jones had issued patents without proper drawings, and in some instances without any drawings at all. Jones replied that he must be the judge of what were proper drawings, but that when he had consulted [Pg 83] Elliot earlier, Elliot had advised accepting certain doubtful drawings, remarking that in some sections of the country, good drawings could not be obtained. Other charges, of less latter-day interest than the above, were also made and refuted.

In the resolution of these charges, William Elliot came out second best, as he seems to have realized in advance. He wrote to Secretary Van Buren in late March, [footnote 12] requesting that if he should not be continued in office, one of his sons, William or Seth, be appointed in his place. Seth Alfred Elliot was a free-lance copyist at the Patent Office, and William Parker Elliot had been, for the previous two years, a student of architecture in London and Paris. By May, Mr. Van Buren had decided that William Elliot must vacate his position, but that William Parker Elliot would be allowed to be a free-lance draftsman in the Patent Office. [footnote 13] At about the same time, perhaps as late as November 1830, Robert Welsh Fenwick left his position as messenger of the Patent Office. [footnote 14]

Thomas P. Jones was transferred from his position in the Patent Office to another clerkship in the State Department, to be in charge of consular correspondence at the same salary. At about this time, he was also appointed Professor of Chemistry and Dean of the Medical Faculty at Columbian College (now the George Washington University). These, plus his continued position as editor of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, must have kept him occupied. The Franklin Institute supervised a massive letter-writing campaign to secure justice for Dr. Jones, but Dr. Jones nevertheless lost his job as Superintendent. He did continue to have virtually unlimited access to the records of issued patents in the Patent Office, allowing his continued publication of such patents in his journal.

But the Elliots had seen nothing to complain about until they saw the next Superintendent, Dr. John D. Craig.

[Page 83 illustration: Blodgett's Hotel After 1829-1830 Expansion]

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