History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 16 -- 1836 at the Patent Office -- The Best of Years

[Pg 95]

The year 1836 was a watershed in the history of the Patent Office. Over a century and a half later, it is hard to realize what Washington City was like so long ago. The railroad was just coming in from Baltimore, and the 40-mile trip could now be made in comfort in only three hours. But the Steigers found it easier to get to Union Mills by canal boat because the boats stopped closer to Union Mills than did the trains, and it was hard to make their own way the rest of the distance when they had their small children with them. [footnote 1]

There were a dozen men landscaping the grounds of the Capitol. The Postmaster General was digging out the area around the front of Blodgett's Hotel, installing windows and an iron railing, so that the basement could be used for rooms for clerks. [footnote 2] Congressmen were paying $10 a week to board in local boarding houses, and during sessions of Congress, local people who boarded also paid these high rates. [footnote 3]

The Steigers had been heating their home with coal burned on open grates in a fireplace, but in November 1835 they bought one of Spoor's fine patent anthracite stoves, and when they burned coal in it in a first experiment, they had to open the windows to reduce the heat. They could now be comfortable in their home in winter, thanks to a patented stove. [footnote 4] On New Year's Day 1836, the Steigers went to President Jackson's levee and shook hands with the President, then rode a carriage home. [footnote 5] Many people in the city kept a cow to furnish their families with milk, and the city kept a bull in each ward of the city to serve the cows of the residents. Each householder was required to keep a number of buckets on hand for use of bucket brigades to put out fires. Ladders and pumping engines were kept in each ward for the use of the inhabitants.

Although hogs were allowed by law to run free in the northern part of the District, any hog allowed to go at large south of Massachusetts Avenue was to be seized and sold at auction, half of the proceeds going to the person doing the seizing and half to the city. The owner of any horse, cow, etc., which died on the streets was required to bury it within twelve hours or pay a penalty. Anyone cleaning fish at the city pumps was to be fined, as was anyone racing a horse on the city streets. Schools were maintained by the city. [footnote 6]

The streets of the city were largely of dirt and mud. The city would not improve the streets because the citizens felt that the federal government should pay at least some of the expense. Congress would not appropriate money to improve streets for the people of the federal district. Hogs roaming the streets [Pg 96] were in hog heaven. Garbage littered the streets, and mud made them feel at home. The street in front of Blodgett's Hotel was a favorite hog slopping ground. On April 14, 1836, a citizen was descending the steps from the Post Office in the middle of Blodgett's Hotel when a full-grown hog came running past, ran against him, and threw him to the ground, striking his skull against the curbstone. His skull was fractured, and he died two days later. [footnote 7]

On March 20, 1833, the Treasury Building was destroyed by fire. This greatly increased Congressional interest in housing the various government departments in fireproof buildings. [footnote 8]

[Page 96 illustration: Portrait of John Ruggles]

John Ruggles (1789-1874) was born in Westover, Massachusetts, graduated from Brown University, and read law with Levi Lincoln in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1817, he moved to Thomaston, Maine to practice law. He was soon elected to the Maine legislature, then was Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, and was later a Justice on the Maine Supreme Court. In 1835, he was appointed by the Maine legislature to be a U.S. Senator from Maine.

On December 31, 1835, Senator Ruggles made a speech to the Senate to propose that a Senate Patent Committee be set up. [footnote 9] He said that he had recently had business to transact at the Patent Office, and while there had inquired into the causes of delays in issuing patents. His inquiry had revealed to him a number of defects in the patent laws, which had not been amended for nearly half a century except for extension of rights to certain foreigners. Patents were issuing at the rate of 800 a year, with an increase to 1,000 a year expected within a year. Back when 50 patents a year were issued, it may have been appropriate to have each patent signed by the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the President of the United States, but by 1835 it took three months to get all of the necessary signatures to issue a patent. Because the Patent Office officials had no discretion to refuse a patent for an invention which was not new or useful, applicants had been known to copy inventions on display in the model room and to request and receive a patent, despite knowledge of both the applicant and the Superintendent that the invention was not new. When the resulting patent was divided into license rights by states and counties, and the licenses for the fraudulent invention parceled out to ignorant buyers, who were shown documents signed by the President with the Great Seal of the United States, [Pg 97] significant money could be made. Such fraudulent sales of licenses were estimated to amount to half a million dollars a year. The proposed committee was set up, and Mr. Ruggles was made its chairman.

Mr. Ruggles made a formal inquiry to the Secretary of State for information on how the Patent Office should be reorganized. On January 29, 1836, Mr. Ellsworth wrote a long responsive letter to Secretary Forsyth, setting forth all of the defects and suggesting corrections. The original letter was forwarded to Mr. Ruggles, who evidently regarded it as one of the important souvenirs of his term in the Senate. He kept the original letter, and it was among the few patent documents among his possessions when they were finally auctioned in 1992. [footnote 10]

In his letter, Mr. Ellsworth wrote that initially the poverty and distress of the country required that any law for the encouragement of inventions must be self-supporting. In other words, the full expenses of operating the patent system had to be paid for by the inventors themselves, since the country had no other money to appropriate for the patent system. This worked so well that, in spite of the great delays in obtaining patents because of lack of necessary personnel and space, the fee of $30 per application was large enough that the whole expenses of the Patent Office did not exceed one quarter of its income. But the Patent Office still had financial problems because all of the money received had to be paid into the Treasury, and it could not be spent without appropriation by Congress, which seemed to treat the patent fees as if they were general income of the federal government.

The Act of 1793 had intended the Patent Office to issue any patent properly applied for, and to leave it to the courts to sort out who should have what rights. But matters had reached such a stage that, while 800 patents a year were being granted, there were currently more than 100 suits pending in court regarding the rights of patentees. Mr. Ellsworth predicted that such suits could only increase until some method were provided to stop the frauds now openly practiced on the patent system.

Delays in the office concerned many members of the public. It was a common practice for an inventor to travel to Washington from a great distance, expecting to apply for a patent and carry the issued patent home with him. Others urgently needed copies of papers or reissued patents for use in court. Because patents had to be signed by the President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General, any of whom could be busy with matters more urgent and pressing than the issuance of a patent, there could be very long delays for the necessary signatures for issuing a patent. Many patents were transmitted 200 miles to get a single one of the necessary signatures. If the signatures of only the head of the Patent Office and the Secretary of State [Pg 98] were required, the average time to issue a patent might easily be reduced from two or three months to a few days.

The clerks in the Patent Office were considered to be underpaid, and were mostly temporary clerks who did not have the mechanical and legal skills necessary for the job. The Superintendent himself was by law merely a clerk, and even at that was paid less than the Chief Clerks of the Auditor's Office, the Land Office or the Indian Bureau. The salaries of the lower clerks were 30 to 50 percent less than in those other offices. One third of the revenue derived from patent fees would suffice to make the salaries equal, leaving two-thirds to be appropriated as Congress might direct.

The issuance of patents to pirates was a common occurrence, and indeed the Patent Office furnished every facility to aid them. Copies of models of previous inventions were made in the model rooms and used to demand patents for similar inventions next door in the Superintendent's Office. Even when an applicant was told that his invention was a direct copy of a previous invention, as had happened the previous week, he demanded and obtained his patent for the same invention. With the Great Seal and the signature of the President on his pirated patent, the pirate patentee could sell state, town and county rights all over the country to people who thought that the Great Seal and the signature of the President actually meant that the patent was valid. The present system provided a rich harvest for lawyers, but ruin for many an honest mechanic.

Jefferson had suggested in 1813 that the head of the Patent Bureau be given discretion to prevent the issuance of a patent which interfered with an earlier patent or which was destitute of novelty. Mr. Ellsworth repeated the suggestion. He wanted scientific men to be induced to take positions in the Patent Office as Examiners of Patents, to have a suitable library to aid them in their examination of applications to detect interference with other patents or want of novelty. Mr. Ellsworth had recently found in a German book a complete anticipation of a recently issued U.S. patent. He wanted the Patent Office to have a good library to aid in examination of patents.

In a comparison of the merits of the United States patent system with that of England, Mr. Ellsworth pointed out that in the last 60 days he had issued more than 200 patents, which was greater than the annual average in England for the last 10 years. England allowed patents for newly imported inventions, but Mr. Ellsworth considered that the reading spirit of the people of the United States was such that it was evidently better to confine patents here to new discoveries. The temptation to patent in this country was such that it might be well to compel each patentee to publish, if not his entire specification, at least his specific claim of novelty. We could scarcely eat, drink, sleep or work [Pg 99] without using some patent. Does this remind the reader of a passage, from an earlier chapter, from Patents all the Rage -- "Our clothes, our physic, and our food, with many queer utensils, must all be marked with patent stamps like warming pans and pencils."?

Mr. Ellsworth recommended that a small portion of the surplus money obtained from patent applications be used to publish all specifications of patents, or at least the claims under the patents. If the material thus published were distributed to the different states, the public would be well capable of guarding against spurious patents.

He wrote that the present Patent Office building was shared with the Post Office Department and was too small for their joint use. The Post Office needed the entire building, while the Patent Office had hundreds of models stored away in the garret for lack of sufficient room to display them. While more room was desperately needed, Ellsworth was particularly anxious that the same should be as secure as possible from fire, since the destruction of the present models would produce a very great embarrassment, especially since so many original patents and assignments had already been lost over the years. There was currently $150,000 to the credit of the Patent Office in the Treasury which should be available to build a permanent Patent Office Building. Mr. Ruggles had asked what additional expense would be incurred in providing an exhibition of machinery and works of art not patented. Mr. Ellsworth replied that with a suitable building having sufficient room, there should be very little additional expense.

Patents were not then allowed to non-resident foreigners. Mr. Ellsworth recommended that foreigners should be allowed to take out U.S. patents, but for a fee corresponding to that which their countries charged U.S. citizens for taking out patents in their countries. This was about $550 to 600 in England and Ireland, down to about $200 in France and Austria, compared with $30 in the United States.

This letter was apparently derived from the suggestions that Keller had made to Ellsworth. Working with this letter and their own ideas, Senator John Ruggles and Patent Office machinist Charles M. Keller worked together late into the night for many weeks to write a new patent law. [footnote 11] Mr. Ruggles, former Justice of the Maine Supreme Court, taught Mr. Keller a new respect for jurisprudence which led later to a career in patent law. Mr. Keller, experienced for years since childhood in dealing with inventors visiting the Patent Office, must have taught Mr. Ruggles some of the intricacies of dealing with inventors and inventions. For then as now, although most inventions are mere extensions of what was known earlier, it is the nature of invention that you must expect the unexpected.
[Pg 100]
By late April 1836, the select committee had prepared its report on the Patent Office. [footnote 12] After reviewing the history of foreign patent laws and of the current U.S. patent statute, they discussed the frauds being committed because of the inability of the Patent Office to refuse applications without merit. They recommended examination of patent applications and the raising of the new organization above a mere clerkship. The previous system may have been good enough for the agricultural country that founded it, but it was not sufficient for the manufacturing nation which had arisen through American ingenuity and intellect. Who could predict what the spirit of enterprise and genius of invention had in store for the country? But agriculture might as well dispense with the fertility of the soil as with the newly invented aids for its cultivation. Mr. Ruggles reported:

"Whoever imagines that, because so many inventions and so many improvements in machinery have been made, there remains little else to be discovered, has but a feeble conception of the infinitude and vastness of mechanical powers, or of the unlimited reach of science. Much has been discovered, infinitely more remains unrevealed. The ingenuity of man is exploring a reign without limits, and delving in a mine whose treasures are exhaustless. Neither are all the mysteries of nature unfolded, nor the mind tired in the pursuit of them."

He recommended that foreigners be allowed to get patents here by paying fees comparable to what Americans would have to pay in their countries. He recommended that a Commissioner of Patents be empowered to reject applications for want of novelty in the invention, with appeal to arbitrators appointed for the occasion and called a board of examiners.

He recommended larger rooms for models to prevent them from being consigned, as 500 already had been, to the dark garrets of the Patent Office, to be unavailable for exhibition. He recommended spending a portion of the $152,000 surplus funds of the Patent Office to construct a building suitable for such display and comparatively safe from fire. The Patent Office, he said, contained the records of this age of inventions, which "would present an object of interest, and tend not a little to elevate our national character. It has been justly remarked that we can go into no mechanic shop, into no manufactory of any description, upon no farm or plantation, or travel a mile on our railroads or in our steamboats, without seeing evidence of our originality and witnessing the fruits of our ingenuity and enterprise." No other nation had ever required models with patent applications, and there was no comparable material for display available anywhere else in the world. A reorganization of the Patent Office was recommended, with a suitable museum of the arts to display models now boxed up in a garret for lack of room to display them.
[Pg 101]
With these objects in mind, the select committee presented a draft statute to establish a Patent Office under the Department of State, to be headed by a Commissioner of Patents, to have an extensive library of scientific works and periodical publications, and, in addition to the necessary clerks, draftsman, machinist and messenger, to have an examiner of patents, the first anywhere in the world, to read patent applications, compare them with what was known in this country or contained in a printed publication anywhere prior to the applicant's discovery, or in public use or on sale with the applicant's consent prior to the application, and to reject those applications in which the invention was not new. The fee for an application was to be $30 for citizens and resident aliens, $500 for subjects of the King of Great Britain, and $300 for all other aliens. Models were still required, and provision was made for their public display.

A statute as requested by the select committee was passed by Congress and signed into law on July 4, 1836. [footnote 13] Again, the builders builded better than they could have known at the time. This statute, sixty years to the day after the original Declaration of American Independence, was a second such declaration. Some historians have said it was the most important thing to happen in the country between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The first Declaration of Independence led to our political independence from England. The second led, just as inexorably, to our industrial independence from Europe. It gave this country such an overwhelming advantage toward national industrialization that European nations did not at first understand what had happened. American industrial progress was attributed to the native mechanical abilities of Americans. But as Abraham Lincoln was later to say, "the patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Now, much more than ever before, it was possible for an inventive genius to profit by making and promoting an invention, which of course induced men to do so. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the industrialized countries in the world had copied significant parts of a statute which was written by a lawyer with an interest in his own invention and by a boy genius who started working in the Patent Office because his father could not afford to give him a good formal education and had to teach him by example.

On July 5, 1836, Mr. Ruggles wrote to Secretary John Forsyth, adding his recommendation to those of many others that Charles M. Keller should be appointed to the office of Examiner for the Patent Office. [footnote 14] Mr. Keller was promptly appointed. None of the patents which had issued prior to the act of 1836 had been given patent numbers, being referred to only by their date of issue. It was determined to number patents as they were issued under the new patent law. To honor Senator Ruggles, the first patent issued under the [Pg 102] Act of 1836 was U.S. Patent number 1, issued to John Ruggles for a locomotive steam engine for use on inclined planes. This was probably the cog railway which prompted his visit to the Patent Office in 1835. Years later, his granddaughter gave the original patent to Brown University.

Mr. Ruggles also proposed a bill on June 15, 1836, to construct a building for the accommodation of the Patent Office. After efforts failed to amend the bill to require the purchase of the Old Brick Capitol from the private citizens who owned it for use by the Patent Office, the Senate passed the bill to appropriate $108,000 to construct a building out of brick and wood. The House amended the bill to require the construction to be of cut stone and fireproof inside and out. The bill was passed by Congress and was signed into law on July 4, 1836. [footnote 15] Both the House and the Senate approved the plan submitted by William P. Elliot and his partner Ithiel Town for a fireproof building for the Patent Office and recommended it to the President. [footnote 16] They also approved plans for the Treasury Department as submitted by Mr. Elliot, and they later passed a statute in 1837 to pay William P. Elliot for both sets of plans. [footnote 17]

[Page 102 illustration: Portrait of Robert Mills]

President Jackson undoubtedly never forgave William P. Elliot for persuading the Senate to publish the results of the Craig hearings. He also had a favorite architect, Robert Mills, for whom he had obtained a temporary job as Patent Office draftsman in May 1835. Mr. Mills designed modifications for Jackson's home, the Hermitage, after it was burned. We can suppose that Jackson very much wished to replace Elliot with Mills as the architect supervising the construction of the Treasury Building and the Patent Office Building, but this would be difficult with Elliot as the winning architect, according to Congress, for both buildings. Jackson, at the request of Amos Kendall, the Postmaster General, had asked Mills to modify his Treasury Building plan to add sufficient room for the General Post Office. Obviously, he did not ask Elliot to modify his plan. Jackson chose a site for the Treasury Building, as he was allowed by Congress, different from that originally proposed. Then he substituted Mills' plan at the new site for Elliot's already accepted plan. With one of the two buildings designed by Mills, he then made Mills the constructing architect for both, cutting out Elliot as he undoubtedly intended to do from the beginning. The L'Enfant plan for Washington had intended the view along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House to be unobstructed, [Pg 103] but Jackson, according to tradition, in defining the new version of the Treasury Building to be designed by Mills, thrust his cane into the ground at the south end of the proposed building, saying it should stand there. The obstructed view was objected to before the building was finished. It is arguable that the view was obstructed to spite Mr. Elliot. [footnote 18]

[Page 103 illustration: Portrait of Andrew Jackson]

In later years, Mr. Mills would deny that he had ever seen Mr. Elliot's plans for the inside of the Patent Office, and Mills claimed that he had made up his own set of plans. [footnote 19] Those who knew better pointed out that the plans were, for a long time, on public display in the Patent Office [footnote 20] and that Mr. Elliot had been paid $300 by Congress for them. Mr. Elliot had met this accusation before, and when he asked Mr. Ruggles for a letter specifying what happened, Ruggles replied that the Patent Office Building had been built according to Elliot's plans, with two or three minor departures, and that he questioned whether any of the departures were actually improvements. [footnote 21] A similar letter was received from Henry Ellsworth. [footnote 22]

The Patent Office was to be built in the area bounded by F, G, Seventh and Ninth streets in the northwest quadrant of Washington. The first section of the building to be built was the F Street side. Major Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the original layout of Washington, had reserved this area as the site for a pantheon or national church for no particular denomination, but to serve as a home for national monuments, funeral orations, etc. [footnote 23] But this was to be a society that had no national religion. The people running the government decided they did not need a building to honor the nation's heroes, and so they decided to build the Patent Office on the site. Looking years into the future, this was to be the site of the Patent Office model rooms in the Heroic Age of American Invention, when people flocked to the Patent Office to see the inventions which inventors were turning out in ever-increasing numbers. At its peak, over 100,000 visitors a year flocked through the Model Rooms to see the inventions and portraits of the great inventors who had changed the world the visitors lived in. The government found that it had quite inadvertently built a building to honor the nation's heroes. But the patent laws were to change, models were no longer to be required, and thus the Model Rooms were no longer required. The Patent Office was to move into a more modern building. The Old Patent Office, as it was by then called, was turned [Pg 104] into an art museum, specifically a gallery filled with portraits of the most noteworthy citizens of the nation. Quite inadvertently, the government again fulfilled Major L'Enfant's plans for his reserved area. Perhaps the good major knew what had to be on that site.

When work was to begin on the New Patent Office Building, as it was then called, in July 1836, the land had been occupied for at least 30 years by a squatter, John Orr, a truck gardener who had an orchard extending as far as Mt. Vernon Square. Mr. Orr used to carry a gun to his orchard to scare off boys who were stealing fruit, until one day when the boys stole his gun and discovered that he did not load it. He also found that someone had been milking his cow and stealing the milk, and he decided that it must have been a blacksnake. Eventually, most of the land he was occupying was sold, and his orchard was cut down. This misfortune so depressed him that he soon died and was buried in a pauper's grave. His widow "Jimmy" Orr was occupying a cabin squarely in the middle of the proposed site for the New Patent Office. President Jackson proposed to build the Patent Office off center in the lot so as not to disturb the cabin. The President left the decision of where to build to Commissioner Ellsworth, who then decided to build the building squarely in the center of the F Street side of the land. [footnote 24] The workmen who were to build the Patent Office built the widow a small cabin on a far corner of the land, to which they removed her belongings. She died soon thereafter and was buried near Mr. Orr. [footnote 25]

The construction of a large fireproof Patent Office was well underway by the middle of July 1836.

Go to top page of Patent Office history material