History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 17 -- . . . and also the Worst of Years

[Pg 105]

Henry Ellsworth was appointed the first Commissioner of Patents, and he was confirmed on July 4, 1836. [footnote 1] By July 8, he had designed a seal as required for the new Patent Office, and it was approved by the President, with the addition of the words "Seal of the Patent Office." [footnote 2]

Clerks under the old law were immediately reappointed under the new law. Joseph W. Hand was appointed Chief Clerk on July 18 and Henry Stone was appointed draftsman on July 21. There was some difficulty with appropriations to pay the employees, since the appropriations were under the old law, which had been repealed, and it was necessary to carry the old appropriations forward to the new law in order to pay anyone. [footnote 3]

By the middle of November, [footnote 4] 308 applications had been filed under the new law, plus 130 held over unissued from the old law. Only 90 of the 438 cases had not been disposed of by that time. The need for new plates for the engraved part of the issued patent and the requirement for engraving a new seal for the Patent Office had delayed issuance of patents.

Charles M. Keller, the examining clerk, the first patent examiner in the United States and thus the first in the world, was already overworked. Here was one man, virtually self-educated, with the duty to examine patent applications in every branch of technology that came before the Patent Office. His genius is shown, not by the fact that he did it well, but by the fact that he could do it at all. But, wrote Ellsworth, by November he needed help. Ellsworth suggested that a second examiner should be appointed. He said that the office of examiner was one of great importance and high responsibility, requiring industry, skill and experience. Few persons could perform the duties of the office, and there were 90 cases pending for which immediate examination was urged by applicants. It was necessary to consult seven or eight thousand models and drawings, many caveats, and European books connected with the subject, frequently written in foreign languages.

The models of the Patent Office, including several thousand stored in the garret of the Post Office, had been classified as well as space would allow in order to facilitate this examination. The $1,500 appropriation for the library had been partially expended on necessary books and an additional $500 was requested. By this time, the Patent Fund contained $160,000 in surplus funds. Much of this surplus was to be spent for the new building, now well under construction. If these were still the best of times, the worst of times were not far behind.
[Pg 106]
William Tell Steiger, already employed as a draftsman in the General Land Office, had a lucrative side business in doing patent drawings for applicants. He was a good friend of Henry Ellsworth and lived directly across the street from the Patent Office. He frequently had to see what had already been designed before he could do proper drawings for new inventions, and he obtained this information mostly from the Patent Office records. Sometime on or before December 14, 1836, he borrowed a book from the Patent Office library to use at his home across the street in doing a drawing he had been commissioned to do. It was a violation of Patent Office rules to remove books or papers from the office, but it was probably vaguely tolerated in Steiger's case. He took the book The Repertory of the Arts and Manufactures for 1797 across the street to his home.

Most of the space in Blodgett's Hotel was occupied by the headquarters of the General Post Office, as the Post Office Department was called, and by the Washington City Post Office. The western three-fifths of the building (the old portion) was occupied by the General Post Office, while the first floor of the eastern two-fifths (the new portion) was occupied by the City Post Office. The second and third floors above the City Post Office, as well as most of the garret or attic of the entire building, were occupied by the Patent Office. The cellar running the full width of the building was dark and damp, with only wooden shutters in the windows and thus subject to drafts. The floor was of dirt or, in wet weather, of ankle-deep mud. At one end of the building, the window was not even closed by a shutter and was open to prowlers. There were three areas used for storage of wood for winter fuel. The General Post Office had an area under its portion piled from floor to ceiling with wood. Under the eastern portion, there were two firewood storerooms, one for the City Post Office and one for the Patent Office. It was the practice of the messengers of the City Post Office and the Patent Office to store ashes from their fires in the cellar. The Post Office ashes were piled on the ground in the corridor, and the Patent Office ashes were kept in a wooden box in the corner of the fuel room. The messengers had been warned against storing the ashes, but there was no trash pickup in those days, and they had nothing else to do with them. The ashes from General Post Office were dumped in the street, along with the piles of garbage dumped there by the rest of the community.

There was a fire-engine house at the northeast corner of Blodgett's Hotel, complete with a fire engine purchased by act of Congress 16 years earlier. The engine was a forcing pump with 1,000 feet of riveted leather hose. When it was built, a volunteer fire company was formed to man the engine, but the members became discouraged and disbanded.
[Pg 107]
A few of the employees of the City Post Office worked there until about 2:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, December 15, 1836, until they had delivered the southbound mail to the driver who would deliver it to the steamboat. After that, the messenger, Samuel Crown, went to sleep in the postmaster's office, the watchman, James Summers, went to sleep in his own room, and a Post Office clerk, Cornelius Cox, slept in a room adjoining the letter room. About 3 a.m. Mr. Crown was awakened by suffocating smoke. He examined the fireplace and could find no fire and then went to wake Mr. Summers. Mr. Crown quickly explored the windows in the cellar and found smoke coming out of the southeast end of the building. He next went and woke Mr. Cox, then ran down the street in his night clothes, yelling fire, to the home of another Post Office clerk, James A. Kennedy, and roused him. He then returned to the Post Office to don his pants.

As he ran down the street yelling fire, Mr. Crown probably awoke someone sleeping in the front room of William T. Steiger's home across the street from the Patent Office. Something awakened a friend of Mr. Steiger, who notified Steiger that the Patent Office was on fire. Then, as Mr. Cox knocked on James Kennedy's door, his knocking probably awoke Henry Bishop, the Patent Office messenger, who lived in the vicinity. Mr. Bishop sent his eldest son to notify Mr. Ellsworth, a few blocks away, and went himself to the Patent Office to get in. He had his keys, but the main door was blocked and he could not get in. He then tried to enter through the City Post Office, but could not make it through the smoke. Steiger went also to notify Mr. Ellsworth but was delayed because Mr. Ellsworth had recently moved from a boarding house to his own house on C Street. Steiger got there just as Ellsworth was preparing to leave. They went together to the Patent Office and tried with Mr. Bishop to get into the office. It was impossible. They tried to find a ladder to enter the office through a window, but there was no ladder closer than the Treasury Department.

The employees of the Post Office Department at the other end of the building quickly began removing all of the departmental records, and virtually nothing of any importance was lost.

Very little was done initially to extinguish the fire. The engine room next door to Blodgett's Hotel was opened, but the leather hose had disintegrated to the point of being useless. The members of the former volunteer fire company had known this for years. John Ruggles, who boarded nearby at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, was quickly on hand. He had the engine pulled out of the engine house and tried, but that was found useless. He then formed a bucket brigade, the first useful attempt to put out the fire. His opinion was that if an engine had been available for use within 15 or 20 [Pg 108] minutes of his arrival, the fire could have been extinguished with little difficulty. John C. Callan, a local druggist, went over to 14th Street and with great difficulty obtained the engine there and brought it back over to Blodgett's Hotel on 8th Street. By the time the engine arrived, flames were coming through the first-floor windows. Water was poured onto the fire for a while, but the limited supply available was soon exhausted, and flames took over for a final time. [footnote 5] Former President John Quincy Adams, now in Congress, heard the alarm bells and went by before sunrise to witness the end of the fire. [footnote 6]

Meanwhile, William T. Steiger had returned to his rented home across the street to attempt to save his dwelling. His wife Maria was nine months pregnant. Some of his friends had gathered at his home, and they took Maria and a few small belongings to their home at a safer location. Mr. Steiger spent his time on the roof and in the attic, trying to keep the blankets on the roof wet. Glass in the attic windows had melted and cracked, the paint on the house was blistered, and the blankets were badly scorched in places. He was certain that his home would burn, but it did not. It was, he said, a fortunate circumstance that the wind blew from the west and not from the north, for otherwise he could not have saved the home. About 24 hours later, on Friday morning, Maria gave birth to a baby girl. The parents were thankful that the birth was not 24 hours earlier. [footnote 7] When Steiger was later ready to return the book he had borrowed, the library was gone. Children played in the ashes, finding tiny metal pieces, gears and wheels, forever disassociated from the inventions they had helped to model. [footnote 8]

In fact, every paper, book and model in the Patent Office was destroyed. About 10,000 patents had been issued in 46 years, and they were all destroyed. The models in the garret, which had been so carefully classified, were gone. The original bound volume of full-color patent drawings made by Robert Fulton was burned. Everything -- gone. Everything that Dr. Thornton had prevented the British from burning in 1814 was gone. Figuratively and perhaps literally, the musical instrument that Dr. Thornton had saved in 1814 had been burned in 1836. Most of the early industrial history of the nation had been lost to posterity.

Congress, of course, set out immediately to investigate the fire. This was not, as patent people might suspect, because of the loss of 46 years of patents. When the Treasury Building had burned down three years earlier, Richard H. White was suspected and charged with burning the building to destroy fraudulent pension papers. The Post Office Department was currently under investigation for awarding dishonest mail contracts, and Congress was having difficulty obtaining the proper records from the Post Office. There was [Pg 109] immediate suspicion that Blodgett's Hotel had been burned down to destroy the records of those contracts. The principal problem with that suspicion was that the officials of the Post Office Department had managed to save virtually all of their records from the fire. It was the Patent Office that lost everything, but the Patent Office was not under investigation. Extensive testimony was taken from everyone who might have had anything to say, including a newspaper carrier who was on the street that morning but did not even go to the fire. William T. Steiger provided a drawing of the burned Patent Office which was published in one of the official records of Congress. The tentative conclusion was that someone had stored ashes containing live embers in the basement, and that they set fire to the wood in the basement. There was no finding of which office the ashes came from.

By January 9, 1837, Mr. Ruggles had a bill before the Senate to do what was possible to restore the burned patent records. All patentees were to be requested to return their patents to the Patent Office for copying, and clerks of all courts to which certified copies had been sent were to return them for copying. The Commissioner and two other persons were to be temporary commissioners to decide which burned models were most valuable and interesting, and the Commissioner was to have them rebuilt from available records. No burned patent was to be valid and enforceable until restored. As many temporary clerks as needed for the work were to be hired. In addition, a second examiner was to be hired.

Immediately after Blodgett's Hotel was burned, the Patent Office was temporarily conducted out of Commissioner Ellsworth's dwelling house on C Street. [footnote 9]

[Page 109 illustration: Steiger's Sketch of Burned-out Blodgett's Hotel]

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