History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 30 -- The Second Patent Office Fire

[Pg 184]

By 1876, the Patent Office was so short of clerical help that it was unable to furnish certified copies of documents within several weeks of a request for copies, even when they were needed immediately in pending law suits. In the most urgent cases, attorneys were allowed to send their own clerks into the office to make the copies, while the Patent Office charged the same amount that it would have charged if its own clerks had done the work. By the end of 1876, the work of printing the drawings of prior and issuing patents was about 85 percent done. There were still 60,000 old patents whose specifications had not been printed at the end of 1876, and acting Commissioner William H. Doolittle earnestly recommended an appropriation to begin this work in the Annual Report for 1876.

The Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia had attracted exhibits and visitors from all over the world. Alexander Graham Bell had made one of the first exhibits of his new telephone. This exposition marked a watershed point in the history of the nation, between a nation with an open frontier of unexploited land for settlers and a nation whose new frontiers were of unexploited technology for manufacturers and inventors. While the very exhibits of the Centennial Exposition were being set up in the exhibition halls, George Armstrong Custer's force was being killed by Indians on the Little Big Horn in Montana, and on the same day, 1,400 miles away in St. Louis, a double-header professional baseball game was being played. The Patent Office sent a carefully chosen 5,000 models of inventions for exhibit in Philadelphia. But, said Mr. Doolittle, the models were not needed to illustrate the value of the patent system. Every hall of the Exposition was filled with machinery and manufactured articles which illustrated the fruits of the patent clause of our Constitution far beyond the power of a few miniature models.

[Page 184 illustration: Ellis Spear]

The next Commissioner was General Ellis Spear (1834-1917) of Maine, who was studying for the bar when the Civil War began. He raised a company of infantry which was assigned to the 20th Maine Infantry. At the end of the war he was a 31-year-old Brevet Brigadier General with an invalid wife and two little children. He cut the brass buttons from his military uniform, removed [Pg 185] the shoulder straps and hat cord, and, thus attired in the best clothes he had, sought a civilian position as a patent examiner. He was hired as an examiner in 1865, was made Assistant Commissioner in 1874, and had resigned his office and practiced patent law for only two months when he was appointed Commissioner on January 29, 1877. After he left office, he practiced as a patent attorney in Washington until past the age of 80.

As 1877 dawned, the model rooms of the Patent Office had reached a zenith never before achieved and soon to be lost. The successors to the model rooms that Dr. Thornton had called the Museum of the Arts had become the National Gallery.

The Act of July 4, 1836, authorized the creation of a national gallery, and in the early days its future usefulness was recognized and every effort made to induce an exhibit of the manufacturing industries of the country therein. It is doubtful, however, whether its most enthusiastic early advocate ever anticipated the extent and diversity of its future contents.

[Page 185 illustration: South Hall of the Patent Office Model Room]

The Model Room occupied the whole of the third floor of the Patent Office Building, immediately under the roof, and consisted of four grand halls, [Pg 186] opening into each other, and affording a promenade of about one-fourth of a mile around the four sides of a quadrangle. These magnificent halls were fitted up with tiers of cases, the room being sufficiently high for two tiers, one above the other. Each case was eight feet in height by from sixteen to twenty feet in length. The cases were made of white pine, with glass sides and ends. They were so placed that there was sufficient room around each case to give easy access to them both for the casual visitor and for inventors and examiners. The cases could be opened and their contents inspected at any time in the immediate presence of an employee of the Patent Office. This great gallery was visited yearly by thousands of people, both for profit and pleasure. It contained about 200,000 models of American inventions, besides many curiosities and mementoes, specimens of home manufacture, and priceless treasures of deep historic interest. [footnote 1]

[Page 186 illustration: North Hall of Model Room (Rebuilt after Fire) ]

A guide book issued shortly before this time described the experience of visiting the museum. [footnote 2] The Patent Office Building occupied two undivided [Pg 187] city blocks, fronting south on F Street, north on G Street, east on 7th Street West, and west on 9th Street West. The length of the building, from Seventh to Ninth Street, was 410 feet, and the width, from F Street to G Street, was 275 feet. It was built along all the four sides, with a large interior quadrangle about 265 by 135 feet in size. It was constructed in the plainest Doric style, of massive crystallized marble, and though devoid of exterior ornament it was one of the most magnificent buildings in the city. It was ornamented with massive porticoes, one on each front, which added much to its appearance. The eastern portico was much admired. That on the south front was an exact copy of the portico on the Pantheon at Rome.

The interior was divided into three stories. The ground and second floors were arranged as offices for the accommodation of the business of the Interior Department, including but not limited to the Patent Office. The third floor was occupied by an immense saloon or public exhibition hall, extending entirely around the quadrangle and used as the model room. Its south hall was a museum. The models and other articles were arranged in glass cases on each side of the room, ample space being left in the center for promenading. There were two rows of cases, one above the other -- the upper row being placed in a handsome light gallery of iron, reached by iron stairways, and extending from both sides of the south hall entirely around the east, north, and west halls. The halls themselves were paved with tiles. The ceiling was supported by a double row of pillars, which also supported the galleries. The walls and ceiling were finished in marble panels and frescoes. The guide book said that a more beautiful saloon was not to be found in America.

The visitor entered the building from a beautiful south portico, passed through the marble hall, and up broad stairs to the door of the saloon. Entering it, the visitor found a large register, with pens and ink, at the right of the door, in which the visitor was expected to record name and date of visit. High up on the walls of this hall were four cameo-like bas-relief figures representing Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Eli Whitney and Robert Fulton. Keeping in mind the accusation made by Dr. Thornton back in Chapter Nine that Robert Fulton did not actually invent anything, one commentator said that the figures represented three inventors, two patentees, and one man who was both.

The first case to the right of the entrance contained Benjamin Franklin's printing press, at which he worked when a journeyman printer in London. It was old and worm-eaten, was only held together by means of bolts and iron plates, and bore but little resemblance to the steam presses of 1876.

Much of the remaining space in the south hall was occupied by exhibits on fire escapes and fire extinguishing, as well as other subjects.
[Pg 188]
Several other cases contained original treaties of the United States with foreign governments. The treaties were written upon heavy vellum, in wretchedly bad hands, with a worn and faded appearance. All except the treaties with England and the Eastern nations were written in French, and all were furnished with a multiplicity of red and green seals which attracted the attention of the visitor. Among these was the first treaty of alliance with France -- the famous Treaty of 1778 -- which gave the aid of the French king to the cause of the struggling states during the American Revolution.

Next to be seen were the relics of George Washington, considered to be among the greatest treasures of the nation. They included the camp equipment and other articles used by General Washington during the Revolution. Here were the tents which constituted his field headquarters, together with his blankets, the bed-curtain sewn for him by his wife, his window curtains, and chairs, his wash stand and mess chest.

Also to be seen was the coat worn by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and the panels from the state coach of President Washington. Also on exhibit was the sword, formerly ornamented with diamonds, presented to Commodore Biddle. This sword was among the items stolen from the Patent Office in 1848 and afterwards recovered. [footnote 3]

Up until 1876, in an ordinary picture frame near the Washington relics was the original Declaration of Independence with the signatures of the members of the Continental Congress attached. Even in 1876, it was old and yellow, with the ink fading from the paper. In 1876, it was transferred from the National Gallery to the State Department. [footnote 4] Nearby hung Washington's commission as Commander-in-Chief of the American Army, bearing the bold, massive signature of John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress.

Close by was one of the most famous of all the patent models, that of Abraham Lincoln's invention. It was a plain model, roughly executed, representing the framework of the hull of a Western steamboat. Beneath the keel was a false bottom, provided with bellows and air-bags. The ticket upon it bore the memorandum: "Model for Sinking and raising boats by bellows below. A. LINCOLN May 30, 1849." Upon his inauguration, Mr. Lincoln got one of the employees of the Patent Office to find the model for him. After his death, it was placed in the Washington case. The opposite case contained the hat worn by Lincoln on the night of his assassination.

A few cases down the way, the visitor came upon a number of handsome silk robes and Japanese articles of various kinds, presented to President Buchanan by the team of Japanese ambassadors in 1860.

The remainder of the south hall and all of the three other halls were devoted to models of patented machinery and other inventions. The cases on [Pg 189] both the upper and lower levels of the exhibit hall were well filled. There were models of bridges spanning the spaces between the upper cases, and models of large machines were laid on the floor of the hall. Here was everything the mind of the day could think of. Models of improved arms, clocks, telegraphs, burglar and fire alarms, musical instruments, light-houses, street cars, lamps, stoves, ranges, furnaces, peat and fuel machines, brick and tile machines, sewing machines, power looms, paper-making machinery, knitting machines, machines for making cloth, hats, spool-cotton, for working up hemp, harbor cleaners, patent hooks-and-eyes, buttons, umbrella and cane handles, fluting machines, trusses, medical instruments of gutta percha, corsets, ambulances and other military equipment, arrangements for excluding the dust and smoke from railroad cars, railroad and steamboat machinery, agricultural and domestic machinery of all kinds, and hundreds of other inventions, lined both sides of the three immense halls. One could have spent a year examining them, and still have learned something new every day. For every article one could think of, there were at least half a dozen models, and there were many inventions to be seen of which nine people out of ten had never dreamed before. The number was increasing every year. As the country grew greater, new wants were felt. They were sure to be supplied, and the model room of the Patent Office kept a faithful record of the history of American civilization.

Supposedly, the Patent Office Building was nearly fireproof, but the events of September 24, 1877, demonstrated that this was not true. The original wings of the Patent Office had a roof with a framework of iron and brick, but by the time the west or Ninth Street wing was built, cheaper methods of construction had been allowed. The west wing roof was formed of trusses made partly of iron and partly of wood. These were covered with pine sheathing with thin copper sheeting over it. Over 100,000 board feet of white pine lumber was used in the construction of the roof of the west wing. Under the south end of the west wing was a conservatory or hot house, and just to the north of this some 12,000 rejected models were stored in the loft up among the trusses of the roof. A finer lot of kindling wood could not be assembled. The precise origin of the resulting fire was never determined with certainty, but a leading theory was that a defective flue passing through the section of the loft containing the rejected models set fire to the models or to the adjacent wooden roof.

About 11 o'clock on the morning of Monday, September 24, 1877, employees in the building discovered that dense clouds of smoke were issuing from the skylights of the building. Firemen were summoned immediately, but there was some delay in getting water to the fire because the fire was 80 feet above the street, and 20 feet above the water pressure in the hydrants. There [Pg 190] was a tank of water outside the hot house, but that could not be reached because of the flames. By the time the pumping engines were on hand, the fire had spread seriously, sweeping over the entire west wing and bursting through the windows and portions of the roof. The first half hour of the fire was so serious that telegrams were sent to Alexandria and Baltimore, requesting that their engines also be sent. The one engine available in Alexandria was sent promptly, and four engines from Baltimore were sent down by rail and drawn by horses to the fire.

[Page 190 illustration: Clerks Passing out Models front he West Hall]

Inside the Patent Office, employees were removing the books and papers from the most exposed offices, saving what they could. In the drafting division, live coals and molten metal were coming down the ventilator shafts. One employee stopped one shaft with a coal scuttle, and another was stopped with a water cooler, while the employees worked to remove 777 folios of drawings containing 211,243 original drawings. These were all removed without the loss of a single drawing from those stored in their folios. The original drawings from the issue of September 4, some 300 in number, were in the model room for use in identifying models and were entirely lost, but they had been reproduced by photolithography in the printed patents, and nothing of real value was lost in that lot. The drawings from 31 older patents in the field of woodworking were in the drafting division being traced for use in printing old patents and were lost to the fire. The Patent Office would attempt to do replacement drawings from the specifications, the only record [Pg 191] surviving. Two of those 31 drawings were from patents which had issued before July 4, 1836, and had been restored once before. Most of the 114,000 models in the west and north halls of the model room were totally destroyed or at least seriously damaged. The 12,000 rejected models were all destroyed, but this was no loss -- they had been kept only because, until recently, the Patent Office had been required to keep them. About 150 copies of the photolithographed drawings of 40,000 patents were destroyed by fire and water, but could easily be replaced by reproducing them from the few copies surviving in other locations.

[Page 191 illustration: Bringing Models down the Main Stairway]

During the fire, the corridors were crowded with people working desperately to save property. Books, papers, office furniture and models were carried out of the third floor to line the corridors of the lower floors. Just after the fire began, a brisk breeze from the south sprang up, so that the south hall, containing the valuable collection of historical objects, was not harmed. By mid-afternoon the fire was out, and the long clean-up effort began.

For months after the fire, intensive efforts were made to repair and restore as many of the 114,000 models as possible, and apparently about 27,000 were restored, leaving 87,000 models lost to the fire. Most of the work of restoring models was done in the north hall, the one that was formerly considered the finest of the four halls forming the model museum. It was the last wing of the Patent Office finished and was used as a hospital during the war. Just before it was fitted up to receive models, it was used for the Inaugural Ball at Lincoln's second inauguration, so that it had seen happy times as well as sad ones. By March 1878, it presented the appearance of a huge machine shop, except that comparatively little machinery was employed, which consisted mostly of small lathes run by foot power and two or three portable forges. The models were first picked out of what would appear to be heaps of scraps, and then were arranged as nearly as possible in the classes to which they belonged, the location in which they were found being in many cases the only clue to the class. The examiners in each class then compared the models with the drawings which accompanied them when originally filed, and they affixed [Pg 192] a card to each giving the name of the inventor, date of the patent, and the name of the invention. The model was then entered in a book, with a description of its appearance and condition, and was then passed to the laborers for cleaning. The first operation was to pickle it in a solution of sulfuric acid to eat out the rust and dirt and then to wash it in a bath of lime water to counteract the acid left from the pickling tank, after which it was dried with sawdust. Then, if needed, the model was soaked in a bath of kerosene to loosen the screws and other adhering parts which could not otherwise be readily started. After draining, it was passed to a machinist, who then cleaned and repaired it as far as possible or allowable. In many cases the model had simply been bent out of shape by the heat, and it was separated into pieces and the bent parts straightened using portable forges. If any part was missing, a search was made for it among the miscellaneous mass of pieces, and when the missing part was found, it was replaced in proper position. In many cases, small parts were made and added to the model to make it complete, which parts, however, were always made to correspond exactly with the drawing. The model was then taken back to the bookkeeper, who entered it in his register a second time with a description of the part that had been added, and the model was then transferred to temporary cases in the West Hall, looking in many cases better than it did when originally deposited. [footnote 5]

[Page 192 illustration: Sorting and Repairing Broken Patent Models]

The monetary loss from the fire of 1877 was many times that of the 1836 fire, but the information loss was only partial. Models were lost in great number, but the drawings corresponding to the models were unharmed. Some 600,000 photolithographed drawings were lost, but these were easily replaced merely by the expense of printing them again. Also lost were 300 original drawings which had already been printed. The major loss was of the drawings and the corresponding models for 31 older patents, leaving only the specifications from which to restore the patent. No patents were totally lost in the fire of 1877.

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