History of the United States Patent Office

The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 24 -- Judge Charles Mason's Patent Office

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Commissioner Hodges was succeeded by Charles Mason (1804-1882), who was generally believed to be the most effective Commissioner of Patents to that date and perhaps the most effective Commissioner in the nineteenth century. Mr. Mason graduated first in the United States Military Academy class of 1829. (Number two in that class was Robert E. Lee.) He then served three years as a professor at the Military Academy. He left the Army to study law and eventually settled in Burlington, Iowa. He was appointed Chief Justice of the Territory of Iowa in 1838 and held that position until 1847. Charles Mason was appointed Commissioner of Patents on May 16, 1853. While Judge Mason was a brilliant and hard-working man, his success in office is due as much to the people he surrounded himself with as to his own abilities.

[Page 142 illustration: Portrait of William Chauncy Langdon]

William Chauncy Langdon (1831-1895) was a very bright young man who graduated from Transylvania University at age 16 and almost immediately became an adjunct professor in chemistry and astronomy at Shelby College. He was appointed an assistant examiner in the Patent Office before he was twenty. [footnote 1] While still an examiner, he was one of the founders of the Young Men's Christian Association in America, and when he later resigned from the Patent Office, he practiced briefly as a patent agent before becoming a Protestant Episcopal clergyman in 1858.

Mr. Langdon was actually appointed to the Patent Office in May 1851 in Commissioner Ewbank's tenure, to work under examiner Homer Lane. [footnote 2] Once, in August 1852, when Langdon had just returned to the office from being ill at home, Commissioner Ewbank came to him and, in a good-natured way, berated him for taking off from work just in time to have a disagreeable person show up to interview the Commissioner because the examiner was not present. [footnote 3]

On June 30, 1853, Commissioner Mason promoted William C. Langdon to examiner third class. In September 1853, William Langdon was offered a bribe of $20 in a letter from Charles T. Porter of New York. When this letter was reported to the Commissioner, Langdon noted [footnote 4] that Judge Mason had written such a letter that "that man won't try to bribe an examiner again." By the end of September, he was appointed an [Pg 143] acting principal examiner, [footnote 5] and by 1855 he had been appointed a full principal examiner.

In March 1855, Mr. Langdon was lobbying on behalf of the Patent Office and the examiners to secure payment of a total of $14,000 back pay for examiners. This amount was to be funded by the device of having an appropriation voted to restore to the Patent Fund money which had been used from that fund over the years for purchase of seeds for distribution by the Patent Office and then making the money available for back pay and raises. [footnote 6] Although the raises were approved without difficulty, a clerical error in the conference committee resulted in raising the pay for the chaplain of the penitentiary rather than providing back pay for examiners.

On March 21, 1855, William De Hartburn Washington (1834-1870), a Patent Office draftsman from Virginia and New York, drew an unauthorized picture in colored crayons on the whitewashed wall of one of the rooms in the basement of the Patent Office. It was a copy of Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. The Patent Office messenger, George R. Adams, saw it and was getting ready to whitewash over it when Langdon praised it. Soon Commissioner Mason saw it and brought the President and the Secretary of the Interior in to see it. The next day, President Pierce brought Mrs. Pierce and another lady in to see the picture. The artist became a painter of portraits and historical subjects. The picture was still in place in October 1856. [footnote 7]

Titian R. Peale continued in the Patent Office under Judge Mason. He had been passed over for principal examiner on every occasion since his initial appointment in 1848. One of Commissioner Mason's promotions in his first few months in office was a promotion of Titian R. Peale to principal examiner. [footnote 8]

[Page 143 illustration: Portrait of Clara Barton]

Another of Judge Mason's appointments that has to be regarded as a success is that of Clara Barton. Yes, that Clara Barton. To begin with, Clara Barton (1821-1912) had resigned her job teaching school in Massachusetts and had come to Washington to seek work. Commissioner Mason intended to hire Miss Barton to go out to Burlington, Iowa, to be a governess to his daughter, there then being no schools in Burlington. [footnote 9] However, she had the capacity for a much more difficult job, and Judge Mason hired her as his confidential clerk at a salary of $1,400. She thus believed that she was the first woman ever to be hired to a regular [Pg 144] position in the U.S. government with work and wages equal to that of a man. [footnote 10]

[Page 144 illustration: Portrait of Charles Mason]

There had been leaks of confidential information from the Patent Office, with some dishonest clerks selling secrets, resulting in injury to the department and to owners of patents. When she was confidential clerk, these leaks stopped. Miss Barton did rouse jealousy among the male employees in the Patent Office, who were impolite to her on any possible occasion. During the temporary absence of Judge Mason from the Patent Office in 1855, she was removed from office by the Secretary of the Interior, but Mason gave her a temporary appointment upon his return. Sometimes, she worked in the office, and sometimes, when there was too much political criticism of her presence in the office, she worked at home. Much of the work which she did at home was copying work, copying letters and patents into large bound volumes.

In the Annual Report for 1854, Judge Mason reported that his office had reduced the number of pending applications in 1854 from 823 to 89 and had doubled the number of patents issued from the previous year. In 1854, the office issued a record 1,902 patents. The previous high in 1849 was 1,070 patents in one year. While the Annual Report for 1853 had illustrated the issued patents with woodcuts, the report for 1854 illustrated each patent, for the first time, with copperplate engravings, adding greatly to the clarity of the illustrations.

Judge Mason noted that the Patent Office had twelve principal examiners in 1854 and issued more than 2,000 patents during the year. There had been a fiction that the Commissioner knew everything that was happening in the Patent Office, but Judge Mason wrote that it was now impossible for the Commissioner to exercise personal supervision over the numberless cases being presented for official action. Whenever one of the principal examiners reported in favor of granting a patent, it was granted without further question.

The Commissioner was concerned that the patent rights of a citizen should depend upon the mere discretion of an executive officer. This seemed to him to be more of an Asiatic system than an Anglo-Saxon system. There should be a right of review of Patent Office decisions by a court -- a fair trial by a regular judicial court. It was true that there was a right of review by the judge of the circuit court, but this was not a new hearing. The judge heard [Pg 145] the case on the record before the Patent Office and was paid out of the Patent Fund. Judge Mason considered such a judge to be part of the Patent Office for the occasion.

In the Annual Report for 1856, the Commissioner pointed out that the English Patent Office printed copies of all patents, including their drawings, as they issued and sold copies at prices which merely defrayed the expenses. He recommended that the same be done by the U.S. Patent Office. This would enable copies to be furnished to individuals at one-tenth the cost of copying them out by hand, and it would make it possible for the Patent Office to have more than one copy for the use of the examiners. The handmade copies in use in the Patent Office were used so much that it was frequently necessary to copy them as the originals wore out. He wanted a copy of each patent deposited with the clerk of each federal district court to enable inventors to consult them without having to make a trip to Washington for the purpose.

We know more about the thoughts and motives of Charles Mason than of any other nineteenth century Commissioner because he kept a diary from June 5, 1855, until February 16, 1882, nine days before his death. [footnote 11] In the first entry, made halfway through his tenure as Commissioner, he noted: "This day a cripple called on me with books for sale. I purchased this with a view of keeping a diary which in all my life thus far I have never done." We owe the unnamed "cripple" a debt of gratitude for his gift to Patent Office history. On the same day, Mason attended a meeting of the "Establishment" of the Smithsonian Institution, but only Professor Henry was present. The Commissioner was ex officio a member of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Commissioner heard appeals from rejections by his examiners, and he frequently reversed their rejections. He noted on June 15, 1855, that he would probably order the issuance of as many patents that year as would any one of the examiners. But by the end of the month, he was planning to resign because of political differences with someone. He sent in his resignation on July 4, 1855. By September 30, he was still trying to have the Secretary of the Interior appoint his successor.

But his resignation did not have the anticipated effect. Judge Mason had suffered from profound melancholia since the death of two daughters four years earlier. The only way he knew to overcome it was to lose himself in work. About September 1855, the Secretary had made some encroachments on the Patent Office to provide space for the Indian Bureau and had been personally attacked by Scientific American. The Secretary had also been dismissing female clerks from the Patent Office during Judge Mason's absence. By November 3, 1855, Judge Mason was back in the office of Commissioner, [Pg 146] having officially never left it. On November 7, 1855, the Commissioner had dinner with President and Mrs. Pierce and discussed the Patent Office.

On November 30, the Commissioner found it necessary to dismiss a watchman of the Patent Office because he was a member of the Know Nothing Party.

On December 9, Judge Mason learned from an Iowa member of Congress that his name was being proposed by farmers and mechanics across the country for President of the United States. He was astonished. However, few members of the federal government were as well known to the public as he was. Every year, the Annual Reports were published and widely distributed, both to mechanics for the patent information and to farmers for the agricultural statistics. The agricultural sections of the Annual Reports were widely quoted in newspapers in every farming community. Every year, the Patent Office sent out seed samples for tens of thousands of farmers to experiment with. The name of Charles Mason was firmly and favorably associated with each of these transactions.

There was a spirited and bitter contest for Speaker of the House, and when it was finally resolved by compromise some clerks loyal to the Democratic party had to be removed from the House payroll to make room for those entitled to offices by the compromise. On February 6, 1856, President Pierce required Judge Mason to remove some Patent Office non-Democratic-Party clerks to make room for those displaced in the House by the compromise. Mr. Mason opined that retaliation in politics cannot be complained of by those responsible for it.

Two days later, General Lewis Cass fell down the steps on the east front of the Patent Office, seriously injuring himself. At the time, there was doubt if he would survive. General Cass was then a Senator, but he had been running for President during the election which took place on the night of the great Patent Office jewel robbery in 1848. He did recover from his fall and lived a further 10 years.

In late April 1856, when William Chauncy Langdon was about to resign his position as principal examiner, President Pierce had been urging the appointment as replacement of various individuals that he thought might help him to be re-elected. First, he recommended Samuel McKain, a former clerk in the House of Representatives, but Judge Mason was unwilling to appoint him to a position higher than assistant examiner. Then the President began urging the appointment of a Mr. Street of Virginia, who had been a partisan of President Pierce. On May 6, Mason appointed Thomas H. Dodge of New Hampshire, former assistant to Mr. Langdon, to fill the vacancy, again at the President's recommendation, and to Langdon's great delight. Several years [Pg 147] later, Mr. Dodge was to be one of the first three members of the Board of Appeals.

On May 14, Judge Mason called on James Buchanan and pronounced him a splendid man whom he should be glad to see as President. However, he had misgivings concerning some of the men he had surrounded himself with, including Daniel E. Sickles, the congressman and occasional patent attorney, whom he regarded as a political fortune-hunter.

The Commissioner noted with regret the death of William E. Aisquith (ca. 1808-1856), who had been two years ahead of him at the U.S. Military Academy. Mr. Aisquith, while in the Army, had become such an alcoholic that he was cashiered and obliged to leave the Army. During the Mexican War he had served as a lieutenant. Two years earlier he had asked for a position as watchman in the Patent Office, and the Secretary of War had recommended him. Judge Mason hired him as watchman. Mason thought that Aisquith had still indulged in alcohol on occasion but not so much that he had felt impelled to discharge him. His wife had died years earlier, and he left three orphaned daughters.

As an example of the sorts of appeals that were taken to the Commissioner, on May 12 he wrote that he had been puzzling over a philosophical problem relating to a revolving disk which seemed to depart from the ordinary laws of gravity. He could not quite understand what was happening. On July 7, he finally reached a solution to the problem. This was probably issued as U.S. Patent 15,353 on July 15, 1856, for a clothes washing machine in which a revolving disk with pegs on its lower side was placed over a load of clothes in a washing machine to assist in washing the clothes.

[Page 147 illustration: Portrait of Robert McClelland]

On September 9, he noted that he had held a conversation with Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland in which he decided that the Secretary regarded himself as authorized to control the Commissioner in matters left by law to the Commissioner's discretion, particularly the right to appoint temporary clerks and the right to obtain sugar cane cuttings for distribution. [footnote 12] The Secretary also said that no appointment, however trivial, and no project involving the expenditure of money, however small, should be entertained without first consulting the Secretary. By blocking the Commissioner's action to obtain sugar cane cuttings, the Secretary had prevented the Commissioner from complying with the directions of Congress. Judge Mason

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[Pg 149] indicated that he was feeling very uncomfortable in his position and did not think he would continue in it for long. On September 15, he sent his resignation in to the President. By September 27, the President called him in and asked him to remain until the Secretary returned to Washington, at which time he was confident that all could be arranged satisfactorily.

In his diary for December 16, 1856, Judge Mason noted: "I am almost overwhelmed by applications for employment. What an alms house is this City of Washington!" On February 16, 1857, Mr. Mason wrote that he had just been offered $6,000 a year by one man to attend his patent business if he left the Patent Office. On July 28, 1857, Judge Mason sent his resignation to the President, to take effect on August 5. He began the practice of patent law. By January 12, 1860, he was working for Munn & Co.

[Page 149 illustration: Commissioner Mason's Room in 1856 Patent Office]

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