History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 27 -- The Confederate Patent Office

[Pg 167]

There is something about the American people that demands a patent system. The United States had a patent system before it had a thirteenth state. The Americans who founded the Republic of Texas demanded and got a patent system. It is not out of character that the Americans who seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America demanded and got a patent system. On April 29, 1861, Jefferson Davis sent a message to the Confederate Congress that the government was already receiving 70 applications a month, and he recommended that a Patent Office be set up promptly. [footnote 1] On May 21, 1861, even before the secession of Virginia and Tennessee from the United States, before the removal of the Confederate government from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate government passed an act to establish a Patent Office. The principal difference from the U.S. patent law was that under the Confederate patent law, slaves could receive patents for their inventions.

[Page 167 illustration: Portrait of Rufus Randolph Rhodes]

As its Commissioner of Patents, the Confederate government chose Rufus Randolph Rhodes, former United States patent examiner and member of the Board of Appeals, who had headed South when secession and war seemed inevitable. It is unclear precisely when the Confederate Patent Office opened for business. The appointment of Rufus Rhodes as Commissioner was announced in early July 1861, and Rhodes was said to have opened his office in Richmond by then and to soon be ready to proceed to business. [footnote 2] Confederate Patent No. 1 was issued on August 1, 1861. Since patents issued with some regularity immediately after that, it seems that the office opened for business about August 1.

The office occupied the whole third story of the Mechanic's Institute Building at the corner of Ninth and Franklin streets in central Richmond. A large hall occupying four-fifths of the space available on the floor was fitted out with cabinets with glass doors to allow exhibition and inspection of patented models. [footnote 3] The main hall of this building was the largest and best public hall in the city. For a time, the Secession Convention met in the hall. When the seat of the Confederate government was removed in July of 1861 from Montgomery to Richmond, those floors of the building [Pg 168] which were not occupied by the Patent Office were occupied by the headquarters of the Confederate War Department. [footnote 4]

[Page 168 illustration: C.S.A. Patent Office]

Not surprisingly, most of the patent applications received by the Confederate Patent Office related to devices to aid in the winning of the war. An example which was given in the first Annual Report of the Confederate Commissioner of Patents was that of Alfred G. Hearn, a village schoolmaster in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, who invented an instrument for measuring distances without the use of logarithms or other difficult process of calculation. For this he was granted Confederate patent No. 36, issued September 1, 1861. The inventor expected this to be of practical value in the adjustment of artillery to different ranges. At the time of writing, the invention was about to be tested with guns at Nashville. In the Annual Report for 1862, Mr. Rhodes noted that the receipts of the Patent Office dropped dramatically in the second quarter, due to occupation of considerable portions of the Confederate States by the Union Army. Thus, the clerical force was reduced. Mr. Rhodes was proud that in each instance when a gentleman found that he had insufficient work at his desk to keep him occupied he resigned, and no dismissals were ever necessary. To the end of the existence of the Confederate Patent Office, in spite of heavy depreciation of the currency, the Patent Office paid its own way without necessity of any appropriation from the Confederate government. Through the end of 1864, as noted in the Annual Report for 1864 made in early 1865, the Confederate Patent Office issued 266 patents. It is believed that a few more patents were issued in the first few months of 1865. Toward the end, the only examiner in the Confederate Patent Office was Americus Featherman. [footnote 5]

Perhaps the most famous invention patented in the Confederate Patent Office was the subject of patent No. 100, granted to John Mercer Brooke for the design of the Confederate ironclad ship Merrimac, or, using its more proper [Pg 169] but seldom used name, the C.S.S. Virginia. The claimed invention related particularly to the feature of that ship wherein the hull of the vessel extended underwater both fore and aft beyond the ends of an iron shield covering the above-water portion of the ship. See page 217 for a copy of this patent.

There is a story behind this patent. It seems that John Mercer Brooke, late of the U.S. Navy -- the same officer who escorted the Japanese diplomats to Washington in 1860 -- had submitted a plan for raising and reconstructing the sunken U.S.S. Merrimac [in italic] as an ironclad warship at the request of Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory. Naval constructor John L. Porter also worked on the project and made the first formal drawings for the project, as well as supervising the construction, though with frequent input from Lieutenant Brooke. Soon after the battle with the Monitor, the parties and their friends began arguing in the newspapers about who was the true inventor of the ironclad.

Brooke decided that the place to have the controversy decided was in the Confederate Patent Office, and thus he filed an application for a patent on his invention on May 2, 1862. His drawings were tracings of the drawings which Porter had made of the original plans. However, constructor Porter did not contest the patent application, and a patent on the invention was granted to John M. Brooke on July 29, 1862, as Confederate patent No. 100. [footnote 6]

[Page 169 illustration: Portrait of John M. Brooke]

The patent did not settle the matter, however, and the friends of Porter continued to maintain that he was the inventor up into the late 1880s. In 1891, Brooke, who had been a professor at Virginia Military Institute since immediately after the war, published a statement in a pamphlet, defending his claim. Because of this pamphlet, we have access to something usually otherwise unavailable, the specification of his Confederate patent

Near the end of the war, during the general evacuation of Richmond by Confederate forces, Confederate troops set fire to a warehouse to prevent the contents from being taken by approaching Union troops. The fire spread and on April 3, 1865, burned a large part of central Richmond, including the building in which the Patent Office was located. Apparently, all of the models were burned, although there is a suspicion that some of the written records may have been evacuated from the city. In June 1865, after the war was over, the United States Commissioner of Patents sent former Governor Leonard J. Farwell of Wisconsin, [Pg 170] who was by then one of the principal examiners in the U.S. Patent Office, to Richmond with orders from high-ranking Army officers to support him, to recover any records of the Confederate Patent Office. He found nothing. [footnote 7] Many years afterwards, two partially completed ledger books, which must have been only a small part of the total records, were delivered by private parties to the Museum of the Confederacy, located in Richmond. These, and a few original patents as delivered to patentees, plus the four Annual Reports of the Confederate Commissioner of Patents and a scattering of other printed reports, statutes, etc., constitute the entire known surviving records of the Confederate Patent Office. [footnote 8]

[Page 170 illustration: Confederate Patent Office Seal]

On July 24, 1865, Rufus Rhodes passed through Washington and stopped to see Charles Mason. They had a long discussion on conditions in the South. He then moved to New Orleans and opened a practice as an attorney at law and solicitor of patents. He remained in practice there until his death by apoplexy (stroke) in 1870 at the early age of 52. [footnote 9]

During the years from 1861 through 1864, the Confederate Patent Office had issued 266 patents. A list of these patents is given in the appendix, beginning on page 207. During the same four years, the United States Patent Office issued 16,051 patents.

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