History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 23 -- Commissioner Thomas Ewbank, Historian

[Pg 132]

In March 1849, after the Patent Office was transferred to the Interior Department, Commissioner Burke was proposing to remove William P. N. Fitzgerald as an examiner for reasons of a personal nature, a feat that he had been prevented from doing when under the State Department. Mr. Fitzgerald had been the assistant examiner under Charles M. Keller, and he had been promoted to principal examiner upon Keller's resignation. Charles Keller wrote a letter to Senator William H. Seward, indicating that Fitzgerald's removal would be a decided injury to the Patent Office. [footnote 1]

[Page 132 illustration: Portrait of Charles M. Keller]

Charles M. Keller, now a New York City patent attorney, was proposed to Secretary Ewing by Senator Seward, in April 1849 [footnote 2] for the office of Commissioner, but he requested that his name be withdrawn, because he could not afford to give up his patent law practice, which was far more lucrative. He wrote of the type of man who would, in his opinion, make a good Commissioner. One good choice, in his opinion, would be John Wilson Farrelly of Pennsylvania, former Chairman of the House Committee on Patents. [footnote 3] Another man approved and recommended for Commissioner by both Keller and Seward was Thomas Ewbank. [footnote 4]

Edmund Burke was notified through the columns of the National Intelligencer on May 10, 1849, that Thomas Ewbank had been appointed Commissioner of Patents. While this could not have been a complete surprise, it seems an impersonal way to notify someone that he is out of office. Burke wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior asking when he should vacate his office. [footnote 5]

Thomas Ewbank (1792-1870) was born at Barnard Castle, Durham, England, and at age 13 he was apprenticed to a local tin and copper smith. When he was 20, he went to London, where he was employed making cans for preserved meats. He saved his money for books and spent seven years pursuing a comprehensive course of scientific study. He was a member of several learned societies when he left England in 1819 to come to New York. He opened a business making lead, tin and copper tubing, which he ran until 1836, then sold out for enough money to allow him to follow his private interest in science for the rest of his life. He wrote and published a widely read book [Pg 133] on hydraulics in 1842 and was working on a volume on his explorations in Brazil when appointed Commissioner of Patents. He later finished and published his book on Brazil in 1857. He is widely reported to have written an account entitled "Reminiscences in the Patent Office, and of Things and Scenes in Washington" in 1859, but if he actually wrote it, it is extremely well hidden and has not been discovered by your present guide. [footnote 6]

[Page 133 illustration: Portrait of Thomas Ewbank]

The annual reports of the Patent Office during Mr. Ewbank's tenure reflect the nature of the man who made them. Mr. Ewbank was an author, and when given the opportunity he collected the history of patents and invention in England and in colonial America, published copies of rare pamphlets on the Rumsey-Fitch controversy, and wrote to the governors and senators of the states and territories to ask for copies of their relevant records for publication. The Annual Reports for 1849 and 1850 are filled with historical information collected by Commissioner Ewbank, much of which would be lost or forever submerged nearly a century and a half later if the collection had not been made when the mass of data in archives and libraries was smaller and fresher.

The Act of March 3, 1837, made the Chief Justice of the District of Columbia a court of appeal from the decisions of the Commissioner of Patents. The occupant of that office was Judge William Cranch (1769-1855), whose uncle, John Adams, appointed him to a junior seat on that bench on his last night in office in 1801. Another of Adams' last-minute appointments, made at the same time, led to the celebrated Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison. Judge Cranch became Chief Justice of the District of Columbia in 1805 and held that position until his death at the age of 86. Judge Cranch was paid $100 a year from the Patent Fund, which Ewbank did not considered adequate in 1849, in view of the amount of work involved. In the Annual Report for 1851 was a copy of a letter dated December 15, 1851, from William Cranch to Thomas Ewbank, stating that his great age made it impossible for him to discharge the duties imposed on him by the patent laws. But he never did retire, because there were no government pensions in those days, and although he was 82, a judgeship was for life. The judge's son, William G. Cranch began occasional work as a copying clerk in the Patent Office as early as 1826 and was eventually a patent examiner.
[Pg 134]
In the Annual Report for 1850, Samuel P. Bell, the office machinist, complained that the great hall on the upper floor of the only wing yet built of the Patent Office was occupied by the collections of the Wilkes exploring expedition and the collection of the National Institute. These collections used space needed for about 8,000 of the 12,000 patent models which could not be exhibited for lack of space. The east wing was being built from 1849 to 1852, to provide the necessary space. Not much later, from 1852 to 1856, the west wing was built, and the north wing from 1856 to 1867.

By the 1851 Annual Report, Commissioner Ewbank complained that the office was so crowded that the mail had to be made up in the halls, where everything was unavoidably exposed to public view. The exhibition of models as contemplated by the 1836 act was not only impossible, but it was also scarcely practicable to protect them from serious injury. He urged that the office space that was being used for exhibition of the collections of the exploring expedition and the National Institute should be cleared and made available for patent models as originally intended. To understand the intense difficulty that this presented for the office, it must be remembered that patents were not printed at this date, and the only way that either examiners or the public had to examine the prior art was to browse through the properly classified models. And, of course, an increase in the clerical force and their salaries was again considered necessary.

[Page 134 illustration: Portrait of Silas H. Hodges]

For about five months, from early November 1852 to late March 1853, Silas Henry Hodges (1804-1875) was Commissioner of Patents. Afterwards, he was an examiner-in-chief on the Appeals Board. He faced the usual problems of resignations of examiners for higher pay on the outside, lack of room and facilities for transacting business, and encroachment by the Interior Department on the space and perquisites of the Patent Office.

In the Annual Report for 1852, Commissioner Hodges wrote: "Looking at what has already been accomplished, some find it difficult to conceive that this flood of discoveries and improvements is still to maintain its progress, and even exhibit a swelling tide . . . . These apprehensions, it is plain, are not to be fulfilled in our day. At no time have there been more decisive indications that every step that is taken in this field . . . does but open new scenes to explore and prepares the way for new triumphs."

Go to top page of Patent Office history material