History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 22 -- The Most Successful Patent Law Firm Ever

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Munn & Co., the Scientific American Patent Agency, was partially responsible for the rapid growth of the American patent system. In its percentage-peak years around 1860, one-third of all patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office were prosecuted by Munn & Co. [footnote 1] During the year 1865, Munn & Co. filed 3,500 applications in the United States Patent Office, while the whole number of applications filed in the British Patent Office by anyone was 3,000. By 1924, more than 200,000 patents had been issued on applications filed by Munn & Co., [footnote 2] which was more than one-seventh of all the patents ever issued by the United States Patent Office through that date.

The law firm which prosecutes the highest percentage of the issued patents in the present-day Patent and Trademark Office handles one percent of the patents which issue each year. However, the law firm of Munn & Co., which went out of business about 1960, prosecuted over 3.5 percent of all patents ever issued by the United States Patent Office from day one to the present date, even though about 45 percent of all United States patents have been issued since the firm's demise. But we are ahead of our story.

Rufus Porter (1792-1884) was a versatile if eccentric Yankee, who was by turns a portrait-painter, schoolmaster, inventor and editor. He started a small weekly journal called Scientific American, and published his first issue on August 28, 1845. His entire circulation was only a few hundred, and he was bored with the project. He offered it for sale.

[Page 129 illustration: Portrait of Orson D. Munn]

Alfred Ely Beach (1826-1896) was a son of Moses Yale Beach, founder and proprietor of the New York Sun and an inventor of some importance. Beach had attended the Monson Academy, at Monson, Mass., and one of his good friends among his classmates was Orson Desaix Munn (1824-1907). Alfred Beach was working on his father's newspaper and Orson Munn was running a general store at Monson when Beach heard that Porter wanted to sell his journal. The two schoolmates agreed to buy the journal for a few hundred dollars, and they took over in July 1846.

Although Rufus Porter had offered patent advice in the journal when he edited it, Munn and Beach published a paper chiefly devoted to patents [Pg 130] and inventions, and they published a weekly list of all patents issued by the Patent Office with claims annexed, and they did so promptly. Never before had information about all patents been available to all the public so quickly. Because of this, they found themselves in the midst of inventors and questions about patents. So they set up the Scientific American Patent Agency to secure patents for their subscribers. Because they were both competent and honest, they succeeded and prospered.

[Page 130 illustration: Portrait of Alfred E. Beach]

In 1849, a spare-looking humble man named Allen Benjamin Wilson (1824-1888), a journeyman cabinet-maker from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, came into the offices of Munn & Co. in New York City. The Scientific American Patent Agency offices were in modest quarters which gave Mr. Wilson a sense of security. He carefully untied a handkerchief and took out two models -- one for a sewing machine and the other for a rotary steam engine. He said that he was too poor to take out patents on both inventions, and he sought the advice of Munn & Co. about which project to proceed with. Although he obtained a patent on his sewing machine, he entrusted his business affairs to unprincipled men and was cheated out of his invention. However, he set to work again and produced an almost perfect sewing machine, which Munn & Co. patented for him. This time, in association with Nathaniel Wheeler, he established a prosperous sewing machine company in Watertown, Connecticut, where the once-poor inventor with a handkerchief full of inventions lived in a beautiful mansion in 1858. [footnote 3]

Before Munn & Co. came along, most of the patent business in New York City was in the hands of George Garrett Sickles (1797-1887) and Seth Staples (1776-1861). George Sickles was the father of Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914), a lawyer who also practiced patent law. Congressman Daniel Sickles was discussed in Chapter 21.

Circulation of the journal had been less than 300 when Munn & Co. bought it, but reached 10,000 by 1848, 20,000 by 1852, and 30,000 by 1853. In 1849, Mr. Beach personally paid to have a short passenger-carrying pneumatic subway built in New York City, and was charging a fee for the ride until Tammany Hall shut down his subway.

For many years the journal refused much advertising. It limited the amount of advertising that it would run per issue, it would not accept any ad more than 16 lines long, and it would not print a cut in any advertisement.

[Page 131 illustration: Portrait of Allen B. Wilson]
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Thomas A. Edison said that he used to walk three miles a week as a boy to get his copy of Scientific American. [footnote 4] In 1877, he came into the office and placed before the editors his small machine, about which he was willing to make very sparse preliminary remarks. He then turned a crank, and to the astonishment of everyone present, the machine said: "Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the talking box?" This was the first public audience to which the modern phonograph ever addressed itself. A good article on the phonograph was published almost immediately.

Munn & Co. was carefully non-political except to promote the best interests of the Patent Office and the patent system, wherever they might be. They wrote letters with advice to Congressmen. They wrote tutorial letters to Presidents. When they spoke, the government frequently listened. They hired at least one ex-Commissioner to be an attorney in their firm.

And they hired Robert Washington Fenwick (1832-1896), son of Robert Welsh Fenwick (ca 1804-1845). He had begun his patent training in 1848 at age 16 in the Washington offices of William Parker Elliot, architect and patent agent, who was a former comrade in the 1820s Patent Office of young Fenwick's late father. He also trained in the offices of Zenas C. Robbins, patent solicitor, where he made original drawings. He once testified that he had been associated with the patent business since he was 13 or 14 years old. Robert Washington Fenwick then went to New York City by about 1849 with his letter of recommendation from Mr. Elliot in hand to work for Munn & Co., the Scientific American Patent Agency. [footnote 5]

Throughout the 1850s, Mr. Beach traveled to Washington every two weeks to attend personally to applications which the firm had filed in the Patent Office. But a branch office seemed necessary to avoid the time spent on the trip. Munn & Co. soon opened a branch office in Washington, across the street from the Patent Office, to do searches and conduct interviews, as well as to prosecute entire cases coming in through that office. Robert Washington Fenwick was placed in charge of the Washington branch office in 1857. Munn & Co. soon maintained other offices or liaisons with other offices throughout the world.

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