History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 26 -- The Union Patent Office

[Pg 156]

Secretary of War (and ex-Commissioner of Patents) Joseph Holt tried to prevent the need to withdraw from Fort Sumter after the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860, and the firing on a ship landing supplies at the fort on January 9, 1861. The fort held for the balance of the Buchanan administration and did not fall until after Abraham Lincoln's inauguration.

The Patent Office was picking up speed. When the Patent Office burned in 1836, 10,000 patents were destroyed, the total issue of 46 years. By 1859, the Patent Office was issuing 10,000 patents in about 46 months.

John Smith showed up again in Washington. He had invented a steam plow this time, and when he came to Washington to promote it, some of the residents at his boarding house told him that to succeed in securing his patent he must make himself prominent in Washington society. Although he was a stranger, his appearance at the President's levee drew considerable attention because of the peculiarities of his costume, which consisted of a brilliantly colored military uniform, with a silk scarf thrown over his shoulders. [footnote 1]

[Page 156 illustration: Portrait of Elmer Ellsworth]

Charles Mason, who had joined Munn & Co. soon after leaving the Patent Office, left that firm on good terms on September 25, 1860, and came to Washington to practice law. He wanted to practice general law, but the path of least resistance was to take the patent cases which beat a path to his door. In October, Robert Washington Fenwick proposed that Judge Mason form a partnership with him. Mason was not ready for that but did rent office space with Fenwick. As the world changed around him, Mr. Mason noted it in his diary. He went to a sermon by Dr. Revere Gurley, a prominent Washington minister and ancestor of a late patent attorney of the same name in your guide's former law firm. He and his daughter went to a performance by the Christie Minstrels (the old ones). He went for a walk across the long bridge into Virginia, thinking about possible solutions for an application that he was at that moment prosecuting. One of his clients was so upset by South Carolina's secession that he could not attend to his business. On December 10, 1860, he noted a violent debate in the Senate which seemed to make reconciliation impossible. The streets of the city were deep mud. The Patent Office, which had always paid its expenses and had [Pg 157] a small surplus, was beginning to show a short-term loss. And on January 22, 1861, Judge Mason noted in his diary that senators and representatives from three Southern states had walked out that day and headed home.

There was much Southern dissatisfaction with the election of Abraham Lincoln, and it was predicted that assassination attempts would be made before his inauguration. Among the guards who therefore accompanied Abraham Lincoln to Washington was his law clerk, newly admitted to the bar, Elmer E. Ellsworth, the former patent solicitor. Soon after the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, Elmer Ellsworth went to New York to raise a regiment for Union service. He recruited among the firemen of the city, and his 1,100 troops were called the Fire Zouaves. The Fire Zouaves were mustered into service in front of the Capitol in the presence of President Lincoln, and they were soon sent to occupy nearby Alexandria, Virginia. When Colonel Ellsworth quickly learned that an Alexandria innkeeper, James W. Jackson (1824-1861), had raised a Confederate flag from the rooftop of the Marshall House inn, he stormed the inn in the early morning of May 24, 1861, and tore down the flag. Mr. Jackson shot and killed Colonel Ellsworth as he was coming down from the roof and was immediately killed himself. Thus, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth became the first Union casualty of the Civil War, if one does not count the four Massachusetts soldiers killed five days earlier by a Baltimore mob. Colonel Ellsworth was proclaimed a martyr. Clara Barton, still a Patent Office copyist, wrote in a letter that she wondered if Ellsworth had not sold himself at his highest price for his country's good -- if the inspiration of his death were not worth more to his cause than the life of any man could be. A regiment was immediately formed in New York City named Ellsworth's Avengers. Scores of families named their babies Elmer Ellsworth, and the name has been carried down to the present day in some of those families. A present-day patent attorney with the name of Elmer Ellsworth Goshorn is known to your guide. [footnote 2]

[Page 157 illustration: Portrait of David Holloway]

On March 2, 1861, the term of a patent was changed from 14 years, with a possible extension for seven additional years, to a fixed term of 17 years. On March 28, 1861, David P. Holloway (1809-1883) was appointed Commissioner of Patents. He had been a congressman from Indiana (1855 -1857) who had tried to establish a department of agriculture.
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Mr. Holloway was a remarkable man, in that he ran the Patent Office to the apparent complete satisfaction of Munn & Co., which was difficult to do, while apparently being extremely unethical by present-day standards. When Mr. Holloway arrived in Washington, rental houses were very difficult to find because of the war. Daniel Jay Browne (1804-ca 1867) had been the head of the agricultural division of the Patent Office from June 9, 1853, through 1859. Judge Mason had noted in his diary on May 6, 1856, that Browne was in some respects a perfect clerk but in others was perfectly incompetent. Although he lived in Mary Surratt's boarding house in 1855, by 1861 Browne had a handsome house in Washington, which Mr. Holloway wished to rent. A deal was struck, wherein the Patent Office would hire Mr. Browne at a salary of $3,000 per year to travel around Europe to look for information that would be important to farmers and manufacturers in this country. While his Washington house was empty, he would rent it to Mr. Holloway for a quite reasonable $500 per year. The only report made by Mr. Browne during the entire period of employment in Europe was an article on flax, published in the agricultural section of the Annual Report of 1861, and subsequently found to have been copied from an old English book. Mr. Holloway also employed one of his own sons at $1,600 per year as the receiver of models from applicants for patents and another son as the chief messenger of the Patent Office. [footnote 3]

[Page 158 illustration: First Rhode Island Infantry Regiment Quartered in Patent Office]
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On April 28, 1861, Judge Mason noted that he had seen a battalion being paraded in front of the Patent Office and that the soldiers were quartered in the Patent Office. In April and May 1861, the soldiers of the First Rhode Island Regiment were quartered in the model rooms of the Patent Office, together with their laundress and three ladies who utterly refused to be left at home. They eventually moved out to an encampment, making it possible once again for the public to have access to the models and records of the Patent Office. During their short stay, these troops managed to break 400 panes of glass; thus given ready access to the models which had formerly been shown behind glass, some of these soldiers stole patent models which caught their eye. [footnote 4] A different set of troops quartered in the Capitol Building managed to deface murals there.

[Page 159 illustration: Portrait of Theodore Ruggles Timby]

Theodore Ruggles Timby (1822-1909) was an inventive genius from an early age. At the age of 16, he invented a floating dry dock and made a working model, but as he was too young to pursue it, he did not patent it, and it did not come into common use until later reinvented by others. When he was 20, he invented a revolving gun turret, made a working model, and filed a caveat in the Patent Office in 1843 to perfect his rights to file against subsequent inventors. In June of that year, he exhibited his model to President Tyler and his cabinet and in 1848 to a committee appointed to examine his plans, including Jefferson Davis. The committee then reported favorably, but nothing further was done at the time. [footnote 5]

Early in 1861, the Confederate Navy began to raise the sunken Merrimac from Norfolk Navy Yard, intending to convert the ship to an ironclad. Reports of this reached Union authorities, causing some concern to Lincoln and his cabinet. About this time John Ericsson (1803-1889), a Swedish-born naval architect, engineer and inventor who had resided in America for 22 years, sent a proposal to President Lincoln offering to construct an ironclad vessel for the Union Navy. A naval board appointed to examine the situation recommended construction of Ericsson's vessel, and the keel of the vessel, named the Monitor by Ericsson, was laid on October 25, 1861. With almost unbelievable speed and with most of the plans existing only in Ericsson's head, the Monitor was launched 100 days later on January 30, 1862, and it was turned over to the government on February 19. The famous battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac took place on March 9, 1862. [footnote 6]
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A distinctive feature of the Monitor was its revolving gun turret. Theodore R. Timby filed patent applications to perfect his caveats, and he was granted two patents on the revolving turrets on July 8, 1862. See page 220 for the more important one. Although John Ericsson claimed that revolving gun turrets had existed before the nineteenth century, his associates bought Timby's patents almost immediately for an amount which Mr. Timby considered reasonable.

[Page 160 illustration: Portrait of John Ericsson]

By June 1861, Judge Mason's business was slow, and he was feeling the depression and loneliness which beset him when he could not fight it with constant work.

On November 28, 1861, Judge Mason noted that he had visited the hospital in the Patent Office. These might have been casualties from the First Battle of Bull Run, fought over four months earlier, or possibly from the Battle of Ball's Bluff, a smaller battle fought only a month earlier. The north and west wings of the Patent Office were used as a hospital from October 1861 to January 15, 1863. About a year after Mason's visit, Munn & Co. reported that in two of the large model halls, cots had been placed in the passageways between the glass cases containing the models to provide accommodation for 800 patients. Yet it was said that the cots were so arranged that access might be easily had to the glass cases containing the models, so that the examination of inventions was not interrupted. [footnote 7] The picture of examiners, attorneys, inventors and the public wandering among the cots of the wounded and dying, searching for models relating to an invention, seems a shadow from another era.

Clara Barton and Almira L. Fales, the wife of examiner Joseph T. Fales of Iowa, became nurses for wounded soldiers. Clara Barton had given her attention to the Massachusetts soldiers injured in the Baltimore riots on April 19, 1861, and she went immediately to the hospitals in Washington to care for wounded soldiers being brought in from First Bull Run. However, there were plenty of women in Washington willing to care for the wounded when they made it that far. She was appalled by stories of how poorly the wounded were treated in the field before they could be removed to the hospitals and of the lack of supplies for the treatment of wounded. She began advertising in New England newspapers for provisions for treating the wounded, and soon she had such abundant supplies that she established a distributing agency for the supplies. Later, she and Mrs. Fales followed the troops to the field and [Pg 161] did nursing there. She was present on 16 battlefields and aided equally the wounded of both sides. Having discovered her life's work, she founded the American Red Cross after the war was over. [footnote 8]

In 1861, the first year of the Civil War, receipts of the Patent Office fell to $137,000 from $256,000 for 1860, while expenditures fell by only $31,000. The inventors from 11 states were no longer filing applications, and, of those in the remaining states, many were off at war. The Patent Office was operating at a deficit. Commissioner Holloway dismissed five principal examiners, five assistant examiners, and five second assistant examiners. He also lowered the pay status of those examiners who remained. The cost of living in Washington increased because food could no longer be purchased from farmers in nearby Virginia. Congress had required the Patent Office to print specifications of issuing patents, but Holloway pled poverty of the Patent Office as his excuse for not doing so. Later in the war years, in 1864, Titian Peale wrote to his nephew that he could no longer afford his hobby of photography because, living on a fixed salary in a depreciated currency, with a greatly increased price of beef and bread and a doubled rent for his home, he no longer had sufficient money to buy photographic materials. [footnote 9]

On January 2, 1862, Charles Mason, Robert Washington Fenwick, and DeWitt Clinton Lawrence began business as the patent law firm of Mason, Fenwick and Lawrence of Washington, D.C. (This firm is, as of this writing in mid-1994, in the fourteenth decade of its existence, having recently merged with a larger firm.) Judge Mason soon noted that patent business was coming in more freely than it had been a few months earlier, although almost all inventions related to machines for war. He soon went to Matthew Brady's shop to have his photograph made. On March 29, 1862, the provost marshall took possession of the Church of the Ascension because the minister had not read a prayer the previous Sunday which the government had decreed was to be read in all churches. In March and April 1862, Judge Mason argued a reissue case for Silverthorn's patent against Charles M. Keller. In June 1862, Judge Mason was asked to represent Gail Borden (1801-1874) in his patent for preserving cider. Mr. Borden is better known for his evaporated milk.

Charges were made that Commissioner Holloway retained Southern sympathizers in the Patent Office and refused to investigate charges against them made by ardent Unionists. William C. Dodge was a patent examiner who went to see Mr. Holloway to demand that he dismiss draftsman Lewis Bosworth for disloyalty. Mr. Holloway thought the charges were unfounded and refused to dismiss Bosworth. Dodge then publicly and loudly denounced Bosworth as a traitor in the lobby of the Patent Office. By nightfall, the news of this charge was all over town, and acquaintances of Mr. Holloway [Pg 162] were coming to him to ask if he were refusing to fire a traitor. Holloway called Dodge in to his office and asked if Dodge had personally seen Bosworth do anything that was disloyal. Dodge said that he only knew what people had told him. Holloway replied that he was not interested in hearsay. Dodge replied that by those standards neither of them knew that Jefferson Davis was disloyal, because neither had observed Jefferson Davis do anything disloyal. Holloway answered that unless better evidence could be provided than either of them could provide, Jefferson Davis could not be called upon to answer for anything. He then told Dodge that by making unsupported charges, he was making Holloway look bad, and that if Dodge continued Holloway would fire Dodge. Apparently, Dodge resigned just short of being fired, or perhaps he was actually fired. It was for reasons such as these that Mr. Holloway was investigated by a committee of the House of Representatives in February 1865 for refusing to fire known traitors. [footnote 10]

On July 1, 1862, the agricultural section of the Patent Office was separated from the Patent Office and formed into the Department (or Bureau) of Agriculture, with Isaac Newton appointed its first Commissioner.

[Page 162 illustration: Portrait of Charles M. Spencer]

Charles Miner Spencer (1833-1922) had conceived a design for a repeating rifle by 1857, and he built a wooden model by 1858. He perfected his invention by 1859 and filed a patent application, for which he was granted U.S. Patent No. 27,393 in March 1860. Some of these rifles were sold, apparently for use by the Navy, in the early stages of the Civil War. However, when General Stephen A. Hurlbut requested permission to arm his troops with the "Spencer Navy Rifle," Abraham Lincoln replied that he had personally inspected and fired one of these rifles and found it unsatisfactory. When news of Lincoln's decision reached the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company, the inventor went to Washington to demonstrate the rifle to the President. On August 18, 1862, Spencer went to the White House and explained his rifle to the President. He was invited back the next day for a test firing. When he returned the next day, Spencer and Lincoln, together with Lincoln's son Robert and a Navy officer, went over to the area around the Washington Monument to test the gun. Lincoln sent Robert to request Secretary of War Stanton to join them, but Stanton sent back a message that he was too busy. They set up as a target a board with a black spot painted near the end, and the President fired [Pg 163] the seven cartridges in the rifle at the target. The first shot was low, but the last six were very close to the black spot. The Navy officer gave the board to Spencer as a souvenir. The story that Lincoln then ordered 100,000 rifles as a result of the demonstration seems to be exaggerated, but it was apparently sufficient that the demonstration stopped Lincoln's objections to the desires of others to order the rifle. [footnote 11]

After the Seven Days Battle around Richmond, casualties in overwhelming numbers were brought into Washington. Five of the Episcopal churches in Washington were taken over for hospitals. Church services were held in Corcoran's picture gallery.

In August 1862, news came that there had been a second great battle at Bull Run and that it had been a victory but bloody. Aid for the wounded was called for, and Judge Mason went to Centerville in an all-night ambulance ride in the company of several physicians to do what could be done. But when they got there, they found that the Union had lost the battle, that the Confederates held the battlefield, and that there was nothing they could do. So they rode back to Washington in another all-night ambulance trip.

[Page 163 illustration: Portrait of Walt Whitman]

In January 1863, the poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a volunteer in the hospitals around Washington, including the Patent Office Hospital. He wrote:

"The vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings, the Patent Office, is crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They are placed in three very large apartments. I have gone there many times. It is strange, solemn, and with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases; some, I find, need a little cheering up and friendly consolation at that time, for they go to sleep better afterward. Two of the immense apartments are filled with high and ponderous glass cabinets, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention it ever entered into the mind of man to conceive and with curiosities and foreign gifts. Between these cabinets are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these openings are placed many of the sick. Many of them are very bad cases, wounds and amputations. There is also a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Then there is a gallery running above the hall in which there are beds also. It is, indeed, a curious scene, [Pg 164] especially at night when lit up. The glass cabinets, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot -- the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees -- occasionally, from some, the groan that cannot be repressed -- sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no relative -- such are the sights in the Patent Office. [footnote 12]

"Here is a case of a soldier I found among the crowded cots in the Patent Office. He likes to have some one to talk to, and I listen to him. He got badly hit in his leg and side at Fredericksburg that eventful Saturday, 13th of December. He lay the succeeding two days and nights helpless on the field, between the city and those grim terraces of batteries. His company and regiment had been compelled to leave him to his fate. To make matters worse, it happened he lay with his head slightly down hill, and could not help himself. At the end of some fifty hours he was brought off the field, with other wounded, under a flag of truce. I ask him how the rebels treated him as he lay during those two days and nights within reach of them -- whether they came to him -- whether they abused him? He answered that several of the rebels, soldiers and others, came to him at one time and another. A couple of them, who were together, spoke roughly and sarcastically, but nothing worse. One middle-aged man, however, who seemed to be moving around the field, among the dead and wounded, for benevolent purposes, came to him in a way he will never forget; he treated our soldier kindly, bound up his wounds, cheered him, gave him a couple of biscuits and a drink of whiskey and water, and asked him if he could eat some beef. This good secesh, however, did not change our soldier's position, for it might have caused blood to burst from the wounds, clotted and stagnated. Our soldier is from Pennsylvania. He has had a pretty severe time; the wounds proved to be bad ones. But he retains a good heart, and is at present on the gain. (It is not uncommon for the men to remain on the field this way, one, two, or even four or five days.)" [footnote 13]

There is also an account of Abraham Lincoln's visit to the Patent Office Hospital. "One of the most unique hospitals in Washington was that organized in the museum of the Patent Office. Each alcove was a well-ventilated and lighted ward. The tessellated marble floors were covered here and there with clean matting, and the general aspect of the place was pure and neat. The President and Mrs. Lincoln, accompanied by Mrs. Doubleday (wife of General Abner Doubleday) and myself, were once visiting the Patent Office hospital, and the two ladies, being a little in advance, left us lingering by the cot of a wounded soldier. Just beyond us passed a well-dressed lady, evidently a stranger, who was distributing tracts. After she had gone, a patient picked [Pg 165] up with languid hand the leaflet dropped upon his cot, and glancing at the title, began to laugh. When we reached him, the President said: `My good fellow, that lady doubtless means you well, and it is hardly fair for you to laugh at her gift.' `Well, Mr. President,' said the soldier, who recognized Mr. Lincoln, `how can I help laughing a little. She has given me a tract on The Sin of Dancing, and both my legs are shot off.'" [footnote 14]

In January 1864, Judge Mason began representing Clarissa Britain, a prolific female inventor, most of whose inventions related to domestic devices. On February 5, 1864, Mr. Mason, his wife, and a Mr. Lawrence of Virginia went to the theater to see Laura Keene in Our American Cousin, later famous as the play at which Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

[Page 165 illustration: Patent Office Ball for Lincoln's Second Inauguration]

Almost two years after the wounded soldiers had been removed from the Patent Office Hospital, the great hall of the Patent Office was used again, on March 6, 1865, this time for the second inaugural ball of Abraham Lincoln. Walt Whitman reported: "I have been up to look at the dance and supper rooms for the inauguration ball at the Patent Office, and I could not help thinking what a different scene they presented to my view a while since, filled with a crowded mass of the worst wounded from the war, brought in from second Bull Run, from Antietam, and from Fredericksburg. Tonight, beautiful [Pg 166] women, perfumes, the violins' sweetness, the polka and the waltz -- then the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood, and many a mother's son amid strangers, passing away untended there, (for the crowd of the badly hurt was great, and much for the nurse to do, and much for the surgeon.)" [footnote 15]

That Monday evening, 4,000 guests came to the inaugural ball and banquet, climbing the curved double granite stairways from the south portico entrance, past the gas lamps that lit their way, and into the recently completed grand exhibition hall, then to the classic eastern hall (now the Lincoln Gallery) and from there into the elegant north saloon of the Patent Office. Gentlemen paid $10 each for themselves and the ladies they escorted, the proceeds going to the families of soldiers in the field. The ladies were magnificently dressed in silk and the gentlemen in formal evening attire, the court dress of foreign countries and dazzling uniform. Two bands played for dancing. At 10 in the evening, Lincoln entered the hall, escorted by Speaker Schuyler Colfax, followed by Mrs. Lincoln, escorted by Senator Charles Sumner. Shortly after midnight the guests went to the supper room where they had an extensive buffet dinner. It was a magnificent occasion to honor the President on his re-election and success in the nearly completed war. The President and First Lady left at 1:30 in the morning, but the dancing and eating lasted until about 4. Slightly more than a month later, the war was over and the President was dead.

Oddly enough, at a time so close to the end of the war, men were still paying large prices for substitutes to avoid being drafted. Judge Mason's office draftsman, Mr. Campbell, had just paid $900 for a substitute for one year when Mason noted it in his diary on March 12, 1865.

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