History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 15 -- The Old Order Prepares to Change

[Pg 91]

Col. James Chamberlayne Pickett (1795-1872), a genuine Kentucky colonel and former diplomat in Columbia, was appointed Superintendent of the Patent Office on February 1, 1835, to replace John D. Craig. [footnote 1] He was in office only a short time, being appointed fourth auditor of the Treasury on May 1, 1835, [footnote 2] and he later served seven more years as a diplomat in Ecuador and Peru. In his exactly three months in office, he set a new record. No charges of any kind were filed against him by anyone, the first Superintendent who could make that statement. Very shortly after Pickett came into office, Robert Mills (1781-1855), the architect, was appointed a clerk in the Patent Office to the vacancy left by the departing Dr. Mayo. [footnote 3]

[Page 91 illustration: Portrait of James Chamberlayne Pickett]

The Administration had a hard time deciding what to do with William Tell Steiger. He was an excellent draftsman, which was a skill in short supply. He had defied the Secretary by continuing to do private drawings, but he had been hired with a promise that he could do so, and Dr. Craig had told him to the end that he could do so. His removal from his $800-per-year position as Patent Office draftsman was ordered on April 6, effective the next day. [footnote 4] Colonel Pickett immediately promised to search for a new job for him if he would not give vent to his feelings on the subject. Dr. Jones immediately gave him $50 worth of patent drawing work that he had been afraid to give him earlier while he was still employed in the Patent Office and offered to circulate his advertisement in the Journal of the Franklin Institute in order to get him more work. [footnote 5] In three weeks, Steiger had earned $160 as a totally private draftsman, getting work referred to him by Jones, Pickett and members of Congress. Meanwhile, Robert Mills had been delegated to be the Patent Office in-house draftsman. Steiger wrote that Pickett was having difficulty getting his work done by Mills, and Steiger's former duties were divided between Mills, Pickett, Keller, and a newly appointed clerk, Thomas Johns. By July, Pickett and the President had obtained the job of draftsman of the General Land Office for him at $1,150 per year, with no restrictions on his ability to do patent drawings on private time. Steiger lived across the street from the Patent Office and had no difficulty continuing his patent work.
[Pg 92]
Charles Michael Keller (ca 1809-1874), who had been working at the Patent Office since 1822 had by 1835 the longest service in the Patent Office by far. Even though he was only about 25, he had spent over half his life in the Patent Office. When his father died in 1830, he had been appointed machinist in his father's place, even though he was still a minor. Keller proposed to Pickett some revisions in the law and the practice of the office to eliminate the practice of deliberately or accidentally patenting the same invention more than once. Pickett assigned Keller the duty of advising applicants concerning the novelty of their inventions. [footnote 6] Colonel Pickett left too quickly for any other action on Keller's suggestions.

Henry Leavitt Ellsworth (1791-1858) was one of the twin sons of Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. His twin William Wolcott Ellsworth was Governor of Connecticut. Henry had been chief commissioner to the Indian tribes to the south and west of Arkansas and made several journeys towards the Rocky Mountains. On one of his trips, he was accompanied by Washington Irving, who wrote of the journey in his Tour of the Prairies. From Ellworth's exposure to the West and knowledge of inventions derived from time in the Patent Office, he prophesied late in life that the lands of the West would be cultivated by means of steam plows. This prophecy was introduced in the probate of his will in an attempt to prove that he was of unsound mind. [footnote 7]

Henry Ellsworth applied in January 1835 to be Commissioner under the Spanish treaty. [footnote 8] Apparently this application was not entirely fruitless, because he was appointed Superintendent of the Patent Office and took the oath of office on May 11. He immediately requested and received a 60-day leave of absence to arrange personal matters before reporting for duty. [footnote 9] Thomas Johns was acting Superintendent until Ellsworth reported. [footnote 10] By July 4, Steiger was speculating that he might be made Superintendent if Henry Ellsworth did not arrive. [footnote 11] But Ellsworth did report on July 8. Steiger said that both Thomas Johns and Robert Mayo had already applied for the position in the expectation that Ellsworth would not arrive. [footnote 12] He thought they had been lighting on the carcass before the life was out and found this similar to the case of Samuel C. Potter, an agent for the Treasury Department, who had been one of 400 persons on a three-day excursion by boat on the river over the 4th of July holiday. He was apparently drunk and rolled overboard at 2 or 3 o'clock on Monday morning and drowned. The boat did not return to Washington until 9:30 Monday morning, but applications for his position had started to arrive at the Treasury Department by nine!

A month after his arrival, Ellsworth was explaining what he had been doing with his time. He said that all of the recent correspondence which had not been destroyed by Dr. Craig was kept strung up on two long wires, and [Pg 93] every time it was necessary to consult papers relating to an application, it was necessary to search through the unindexed papers. Each time a letter from the wires was consulted and put back on the wires, a new hole was pierced, obliterating part of the copy. Ellsworth was having all of the letters bound and indexed to make it quicker to consult them. He found a third of the floor in the Superintendent's office occupied by over 60 models of unpatented inventions and removed them to a separate room, making the Superintendent's office much easier to use. He found that no list of applicants for patent had ever been made, which deficiency he corrected. He also had envelopes printed, one of which was to be used for each application, creating the first application files. Although he considered himself almost caught up on the work as far as strangers were concerned, he was far behind on the internal reports that were considered necessary. He thought that some revision to the patent law should be made to eliminate the need for signatures for so many officials, including the President. He noted that 50 patents were then awaiting the signature of the President. [footnote 13]

[Page 93 illustration: Portrait of Henry Leavitt Ellsworth]

The next month, Ellsworth explained that the very building was inadequate. There was immediate need for more space to store models, and several hundred were piled away in the garret of the Post Office. The great weight of the models was endangering the building. Ellsworth noted that there was a surplus of $130,000 to the credit of the Patent Office in the Treasury, in what was later called the Patent Fund. He suggested that this money would be adequate to build a suitable building for the Patent Office. [footnote 14]

John Gill (1798-1843), of New Bern, North Carolina, a locksmith, watch-maker, goldsmith and silversmith, made his first revolving gun in 1829. It was a predecessor of the six-shooter, but might more properly be called a fourteen-shooter, since it had 14 chambers. He was a man with very little money whose friends advised him not to waste it on a patent. He traveled by boat from New Bern up to Norfolk, then up the bay to Baltimore. Upon arrival in Baltimore he became ill before he could go down to Washington and the Patent Office. A visitor called on him while he was recovering and borrowed his model to show a friend. When he recovered and traveled to Washington, Mr. Gill found that Samuel Colt had arrived before him to patent his six-shooter. He was convinced that somehow Samuel Colt had learned of his [Pg 94] invention. Before his death at an early age, Mr. Gill gave his tools and mechanical books to a friend to hold in trust for Gill's two sons. Mr. Gill's original model was still owned by the Matthews family of New Bern in January 1861, but it was stolen by Union solders during the 1862 capture of New Bern. Remarkably, after the Civil War, John Gill's son Richard C. Gill obtained a position at the Patent Office and by the 1880s was in charge of the model rooms, at that time the most successful museum in Washington. [footnote 15]

Charles M. Keller enlarged and refined the suggestions for improving the Patent Office which he had earlier given to Pickett and then presented them to Superintendent Ellsworth. A newly appointed Senator arrived from Maine, in the days when senators were still appointed by the state legislatures. Senator John Ruggles, who was an inventor himself, came to the Patent Office shortly after his arrival in Washington. The reason for his visit is not now remembered, but it was probably in connection with his invention for a cog railway. He met Mr. Keller, and they had a long discussion on the faults in the current patent system.

[Page 94 illustration: Model Room of the Patent Office about 1835]

Go to top page of Patent Office history material