History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 29 -- The Patent Office Begins to Look Modern

[Pg 178]

Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) believed in the patent system. In his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Hank Morgan, the Connecticut Yankee, said that "the very first official thing I did, in my administration -- and it was on the very first day of it too -- was to start a patent office; for I knew that a country without a patent office and good patent laws was just a crab and couldn't travel anyway but sideways and backwards." [footnote 1] Clemens had three patents on inventions of his own. His most famous patented invention was his self-pasting scrapbook, a book with adhesive already on the pages so that items could be pasted in by wetting the page to activate the adhesive. This scrapbook sold 25,000 copies, which he said "was well enough for a book that did not contain a single word that critics could praise or condemn."

But as an inventor and promoter of inventions, Twain could not equal Col. Beriah Sellers, a character in The Gilded Age, written in 1873 jointly by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. In Chapter 8, they wrote that the "Colonel's tongue was a magician's wand that turned dried apples into figs and water into wine as easily as it could turn a hovel into a palace and present poverty into imminent future riches." The Colonel was a confidence man except that he believed in what he was selling. At one point he says:

[Page 178 illustration: Portrait of Mark Twain]

"I've been experimenting (to pass away the time) on a little preparation for curing sore eyes -- a kind of decoction nine-tenths water and the other tenth drugs that don't cost more than a dollar a barrel; I'm still experimenting; there's one ingredient wanted to perfect the thing, and somehow I can't just manage to hit upon the thing that's necessary, and I don't dare talk with a chemist, of course. But I'm progressing, and before many weeks I wager the country will ring with the fame of Beriah Sellers' Infallible Imperial Oriental Optic Liniment and Salvation for Sore Eyes -- the Medical Wonder of the Age! Small bottles fifty cents, large ones a dollar. Average cost, five and seven cents for the two sizes. The first year sell, say, ten thousand bottles in Missouri, seven thousand in Iowa, three thousand in Arkansas, four thousand in Kentucky, six thousand in Illinois, and say twenty-five thousand in the rest of the country. Total, fifty-five thousand bottles; profit clear of all expenses, twenty thousand dollars at the very lowest calculation. [Pg 179] All the capital needed to manufacture the first two thousand bottles -- say a hundred and fifty dollars -- then the money would begin to flow in. The second year, sales would reach 200,000 bottles -- clear profit, say, $75,000 -- and in the meantime the great factory would be building in St. Louis, to cost, say, $100,000. The third year we could easily sell 1,000,000 bottles in the United States -- profit at least $350,000 -- and then it would begin to be time to turn our attention toward the real idea of the business." In other words, Colonel Sellers was a typical optimistic inventor with an accounting system in place to account for his massive profits before he has finished the invention.

Strangely enough, the authors settled upon Beriah as the first name of Colonel Sellers only in the second edition. In the first edition, they called the Colonel by the name Eschol Sellers. Twain reported that "when the book had been out about a week, one of the stateliest and handsomest and most aristocratic white men that ever lived, called around, with the most formidable libel suit in his pocket that ever -- well, in brief, we got his permission to suppress an edition of ten million copies of the book and change the name to `Beriah Sellers' in future editions. The figure of ten million is taken from memory, and probably incorrect. Think it was more." And the gentleman who called? Of course. It was our friend George Escol Sellers. [footnote 2]

Commissioner Fisher resigned from office as of November 10, 1870, and was replaced temporarily by Assistant Commissioner Samuel A. Duncan as acting Commissioner. [footnote 3] The first provision for an Assistant Commissioner was made by the consolidated Patent Act of 1870, and General Duncan was the first to occupy the position. When General Duncan left the Patent Office soon afterwards, he became the law partner of Colonel Fisher. Charles Mason and Scientific American both thought that the firm of Fisher and Duncan had undue influence with the Commissioner in 1874. [footnote 4]

In his only Annual Report, that for 1870, Mr. Duncan noted that the lithographing of drawings for patents being issued had begun. He also noted, as an item of expense, keeping a Patent Office horse. He recommended that the weekly listing of issued patents authorized by the consolidation Act of 1870 be expanded to be the only place of publication of all the advertisements that the Patent Office was required to make, and that it thus become the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office. This was done on January 1, 1872. A person attempting to find such advertisements could thus find them all in one place. Mr. Duncan also noted with approval the recently begun publication of the Commissioner's Decisions.

On January 16, 1871, Mortimer D. Leggett (1821-1896) became the new Commissioner. Mr. Leggett was trained in both law and medicine and had been Superintendent of Schools in Zanesville, Ohio, before the Civil War. He [Pg 180] had been a colonel heading the 78th Ohio volunteer regiment when General Grant had him promoted to brigadier general because of gallantry. He was later made a temporary (i.e. brevet) major general. When President Grant remembered Mr. Leggett and offered him a job in his administration, Leggett said that the only Government job that he wanted was Commissioner of Patents. Grant said that when the job became vacant, Leggett would have it, and he did.

[Page 180 illustration: Portrait of Mortimer D. Leggett]

In the Annual Report for 1871, Commissioner Leggett wrote that the Patent Office had upgraded the Patent Office pony by purchasing a horse, carriage and livery. He noted the necessity for reproducing the drawings of previously issued patents to allow for proper management of the business of the office. By the time of the Annual Report of 1872, old patents were being printed rapidly. In some classes, all the old patents had been printed and could be consulted by examiners in their own rooms, while other examiners still had to go to the general portfolios and wait until examiners ahead of them were finished.

In January 1873, Titian Ramsay Peale, now age 72, was dismissed as an examiner because of alleged mental or bodily infirmity, and was appointed a class two clerk. Mrs. Peale maintained that he was as vigorous in mind and body as he ever was. There was no provision in the law at that time for a pension for long and faithful service to the government. Professor Henry of the Smithsonian protested that Mr. Peale's services were invaluable to the government. However, the Secretary of the Interior said that Commissioner Leggett did as he wished in the Patent Office. After 38 years of service to the U.S. government, Mr. Peale was to be offered a leave of absence as a class two clerk, in the absence of a pension. Later, Mr. Leggett extended his pay as examiner to the first of July 1873. [footnote 5]

E. T. Hall came in to see Commissioner Leggett with the original patent, issued July 31, 1790, to Samuel Hopkins. He offered to sell it to the government. General Leggett was anxious to secure it for the government but had no appropriate funds with which to purchase it. It belonged to Mr. Hall's elderly uncle, who was asking $500 for it. [footnote 6]

Chester Greenwood (1858-1937) was a 15-year-old lad living in Farmington, Maine, in 1873. Chester had large ears which stuck out from his head and formed excellent heat radiators. Unfortunately, in rural Maine in the [Pg 181] winter, such ears were subject to frostbite and other painful treatment by the weather. In December 1873, Chester got a new pair of ice skates and went down to try them out on the recently frozen Sandy River. His enjoyment of his skates was cut short by the incipient frostbite of his ears. He went home and got some baling wire and bent it to form two loops at the ends of a foot-long piece of wire. He then asked his grandmother to sew a piece of fur over each of the loops. When she finished, he had the world's first earmuffs. Necessity is sometimes actually the mother of invention. Now Chester could skate. Other people saw Chester's ear protectors and wanted a pair of their own. Because the baling wire would not hold its shape well, Chester went on to design an adjustable steel band to hold the protectors over the ears. On March 13, 1877, 19-year-old Chester received U.S. Patent 188,292 for his ear mufflers. He went on to establish a factory in Farmington to manufacture earmuffs, and in its peak year this factory turned out 400,000 earmuffs a year. Nor was this the end of Chester's inventive career. He went on to obtain over 100 patents for his various inventions, including self-priming spark plugs, airplane shock absorbers, and the spring steel rake. He was one of the couple of dozen most prolific inventors in the nation, well behind Thomas Edison and John Smith, but a significant contributor to the progress and comfort of the nation nevertheless. In 1977, the State of Maine made December 21 -- approximately the winter solstice -- an annual Chester Greenwood Day, to honor the man who made the inevitable cold weather of each upcoming winter just a little more bearable in Maine. [footnote 7]

[Page 181 illustration: Portrait of Chester Greenwood]

Perpetual motion machines have a particular affinity for the Patent Office. The types of persons who propose such machines are sometimes astounding. The Reverend Doctor John Smith, or the same man by a different name, a local man well known at the Capital, and not suspected of studying any machinery but that of the moral law, appeared one day in the office of Commissioner Leggett.

"I know I've got it," he said.

"What, sir?"

"PERPETUAL MOTION, sir. Look!" He set down a little machine. "If the floor were not in the way, if the earth were not in the way, that weight [Pg 182] would never stop, and my machine would go on forever. I know this is original with me -- that it has never occurred before to anybody else."

So enthusiastic was the doctor, it was with difficulty he could be restrained from depositing his money and leaving the experiment to be patented. So Commissioner Leggett quietly sent to the Patent Office Library for a book -- a history of attempts to create perpetual motion. Opening the book, he pointed out to the astonished would-be inventor that his own machine had been tried and had failed more than a hundred years before. The reverend doctor took the book out of the Commissioner's office, read, digested, and meditated thereon -- then brought it back and placed it before the Commissioner in silence. No one ever heard him speak of perpetual motion again.

Another John Smith, this one an embalmer, sent a letter to Commissioner Leggett to describe a new process of embalming which he had originated. It was accompanied by an embalmed baby -- submitted as the model which he requested should be placed in one of the glass cases of the Model Room. He considered himself deeply injured when his request was refused. [footnote 8]

[Page 182 illustration: Portrait of John Marshall Thacher]

John Marshall Thacher (1836-post 1895) of Vermont was appointed Commissioner of Patents on November 1874. He had been appointed to the Patent Office as a temporary clerk and soon as an assistant examiner in 1864. He had been an examiner-in-chief since 1870 and was Assistant Commissioner under Mr. Leggett. In his Annual Report for 1874, he noted that the Patent Office spent a large sum of money to lithograph the drawings from patents issued in previous years, but there was still a considerable sum of money received in excess of expenses. The specifications had been printed only since 1866, and he proposed to print all available specifications since 1836. Mr. Thacher resigned as Commissioner effective October 1, 1875.

Rodolphus (sometimes Robert) Holland Duell (1824-1891) of Cortland, New York, was appointed Commissioner on October 1, 1875. He had been a judge and had spent eight years in Congress. In his only Annual Report, that for 1875, he noted that there were only one-fourth of the old patents for which work had not at least begun toward reproducing their drawings. He pointed out that the office was so crowded that each of the 24 rooms assigned to principal examiners, each 20 by 20 feet, was occupied by between five to twelve persons.

[Page 183 illustration: Portrait of R. Holland Duell]
[Pg 183]
On November 8, 1875, William Tell Steiger visited Commissioner Duell to return the volume that he borrowed from the Patent Office library just before fire in 1836, 39 years earlier. Commissioner Duell, recognizing an eyewitness when he saw one, asked Mr. Steiger to write out an account of his experiences in the early Patent Office. Steiger's explanation of the survival of the volume is that it had "escaped that conflagration by being accidentally in use at the writer's residence," but how a book can be accidentally in use is not clear to your guide.

In his letter, Steiger promoted an exaggerated version of the episode in 1814 when Dr. Thornton saved the Blodgett's Hotel from being burned by the British. He wrote: "during the war of 1812 with England, when the British captured the City of Washington and burnt the Capitol Building, a squad of soldiers with their officer, it is said, trained a loaded cannon, before the entrance of the Patent Office, with the intent of blowing it to atoms. When Doctor Thornton, the `Superintendent' as he was then styled, threw himself before the gun, with the fires of seventy six flashing from his eyes, he demanded, `Are you Englishmen, or only Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent Office, the depository of the ingenuity and invention of the American nation, in which the whole civilized world is interested. Would you destroy it? If so, fire away! and let the charge pass through my body!' The soldiers held down their heads, and the officer, much be it said to his credit ordered them and the gun away. And thus was the Patent Office saved on this occasion by the intervention of a very resolute man, the patriotic though eccentric Dr. Thornton. What if a similar stand had been taken at the burning of the Capitol? -- that disgrace on the British name. Would it have stayed the match? Let us try to be charitable."

The volume returned by William Tell Steiger and the letter which he wrote were kept in the bookcase in the office of the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks until sent out about 1990 for careful restoration as the only relic of the pre-1836 Patent Office.

Charles M. Keller died on October 15, 1874. Commissioner Leggett called a meeting of all of the members of the examining corps the next day, where he eulogized Keller as the Nestor of the Patent Office. Resolutions were passed expressing the examiners' high sense of the worth and talents of the man and of the loss of to the office and the profession by his death. [footnote 9]

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