History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Interlude for Fiction -- A Scene in the Patent Office

[Pg 135]

From The Knickerbocker Magazine of January 1851 comes a short story written by Henry Hiram Riley (1813-1888), with original punctuation. Henry Riley was a lawyer, newspaper editor, prosecuting attorney, Michigan state senator, delegate for Douglas to the 1860 Democratic Convention, maybe a Michigan circuit court judge, and a frequent contributor to The Knickerbocker Magazine. [footnote 1]

By an Old Contributor

'This improvement,' said my loquacious acquaintance, 'will dispense with nine tenths of the wood now used, and will be considered in less than two years the wonder of the age!'

This remark was made to me in the Patent-Office at Washington, by one of those eccentric characters whose life had been made up by piling invention upon invention, all of which, as far as they were modelled and patented, were set up to be gazed at by the loungers who visit that great depository of American genius.

My acquaintance, unfortunately, had spent his whole life for his country, but not one moment for himself. The fruits of his intellect, and the labor of his hands, were very abundant all over the Patent-Office, but at home his wife was out of flour, and himself and children were in rags. The truth is, he never had a moment's time to bestow upon his own immediate needs, for Science had taken him captive, and had driven him for more than thirty years, under whip and spur, through all the mysteries of mechanism. He was a mere originator of complex machines, but never carried anything into practical operation, as that was mere drudgery. Invention was poetry to him, but his mind was satisfied, and his stimulus vanished, when he fully became convinced that his labors were successful.

'Nine tenths of the wood,' said I; 'why, that's nothing! you can't test your invention before the wood and the stove will both be dispensed with. This is a great age, Sir, in mechanics. Twenty, thirty, forty years ago were great ages too, or were then so called. The greatness of a people in any department of science is determined by the advancement of preceding generations, not by the perfection of the age itself; for we do not yet know what the point of perfection in science is, or where or when it may be found. Old Uncle Ben [Pg 136] Franklin, great as he was in his day, would, if he should suddenly appear among us, be a mere boy in science.'

My acquaintance, however, who had by this time grown warm upon his favorite subject, opened upon me with his argument, in which he attempted to show that science had nearly reached perfection; that first principles were all discovered, and that nearly every application and combination of them that were or ever could be useful to mankind, were already made; in fine, that the intellect of the present generation would in all probability use up all the matériel which nature has provided for it to feed upon; and that in about twenty years, all physical and scientific truths would be rolled up like an old blanket, marked 'demonstrated,' and filed away for the inspection of fools that might follow after.

While listening to his harangue, the walls around me began to expand wider and wider, and the ceiling above raised to an enormous height, while through open doors or passages I saw room after room groaning with thousands of models, until it appeared as though I were in a wilderness of miniature machinery. Very soon a pert little gentleman, with a quick black eye, and a 'pussy' body, arrayed in the queerest costume I ever saw, came bustling up to me, and asked me for my ticket. I involuntarily thrust my hand into the depth of my breeches-pocket, and pulling out a card, delivered it to him. After looking at the card, and then at me, and then at the card again, he burst out into a loud guffaw, that made the old Patent-Office ring. 'Why, Sir,' said he, 'this is no ticket. It is the business card of one John Smith, advertising a patent dog churn, of which he says here he is the real inventor, and it bears date in the year 1850 -- nearly two hundred years ago! The churn may be found in room marked 'Inventions of the Year 1850,' but the man John Smith we haven't got. I don't much think he is around above ground, just at this time,' said the little man, chuckling. 'But,' said I, 'who are you, if I am not John Smith? Were you not appointed by Fillmore Secretary of the Interior, and did I not put a word in his ear favorable to you?' 'Fillmore! a 'Secretary of the Interior!' -- exclaimed he; 'I appointed by Fillmore! Why, my dear Sir, I was appointed only two years ago -- not two hundred! -- 'Chief of the 'Great Central Department,' as the office is now called.'

While we were talking, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Fulton walked in and took seats. I knew Uncle Ben the moment I cast my eyes upon him. He was dressed in good old '76 style; -- shoe-buckles, short breeches, queue and all; and that same jolly round face and double-chin; that tranquil countenance just touched, without being destroyed, by comedy -- were all there. Adams and Jefferson I had before seen, and they were a little more modern in dress, [Pg 137] but they both looked care-worn. Fulton sat apart, and eyed the other three as though he had seen them somewhere, but yet could not call them by name.

The rather unexpected arrival of these gentlemen broke up the comments of my bustling interrogator, and one of those pauses occurred which frequently do, upon the appearance of strangers. Uncle Ben asked Jefferson if he would 'not like to move up to the fire and warm his feet?' 'Fire!' said I, 'fire? Why Uncle Ben, there is no fire-place now-a-days. Stoves and hot-air furnaces are all the go. This building is warmed by a great furnace, and two miles of pipe that conducts the heat to every room in it.' 'Not by a long way!' said my bustling friend -- 'not by a long way, Mr. John Smith. This trumpery is all piled away among the inventions of the years that were. These things belong to the age of your dog-churn. Why, gentlemen,' continued he, 'have you never heard of the Great Southern Hot Air Company, chartered in 1960, whose business it is to furnish warm air from the South to persons at the North; price to families three dollars a year; all done by a gigantic underground tunnel, and branches, worked at the other end by an air-pump! Have you never heard of this, gentlemen? Here we get the natural heat of the South, warmed by the sun; none of your stinking coal and wood gases to corrupt and destroy it. And then the principle of reciprocity is kept up; for we send back our cold air in the same way; and so we keep up an equilibrium, for the South are just as strenuous as ever to keep up the equilibrium of the Union. Why gentlemen, those stoves required constant care. As often as every week it was necessary to replenish them with wood or coal. No! no! -- those improvements belonged to the dark ages.'

'Bless me!' exclaimed Uncle Ben. 'Impossible!' repeated Fulton. 'And so you don't use the old `Franklin' stove any more?' said Uncle Ben. 'Perhaps,' he continued, a quiet smile playing over his face, as if he intended a comical shot, 'perhaps you don't use lightning now-a-days either, and my lightning-rods of course belong to the dark ages too!'

'We have the lightning, and use it too, but only one rod, built by the State, near its centre, which is so colossal and powerful that it protects everything around it.' And then the little fellow rattled on about the use of lightning; how it wrote all over the world the English language, until I verily believe that Uncle Ben, Fulton, and all set him down as the most unscrupulous liar that they had ever met with.

'I think,' said Uncle Ben, 'that I could convince myself of the truth of your assertions, if I could go to Boston; but as my time is very limited, I cannot.'

'Send you there in five minutes by the watch!' answered the little man; 'or if that's too soon, in twenty-four hours. It requires powerful lungs to go by balloon -- time five minutes -- departure every half hour. The magnetic railway [Pg 138] train will take you through in four hours, or on the old fashioned railroad in twenty-four.' 'What!' said Uncle Ben, 'is the old stage company entirely broken up?' 'Don't know what you mean by stages,' said the little man, 'but I will look for the word in the big dictionary.' 'Go by steam-boat," said Fulton. 'Steam-boat!' repeated the little man -- 'steam-boat! too everlasting slow -- not over twenty-five miles an hour -- well enough for freight, but passengers cannot endure them; they go laboring and splashing along at a snail's pace, and they are enough to wear out any man's patience. Yet the steam-boat was the greatest stride ever made at any one time in the way of locomotion, and was very creditable to Fulton, and the age in which he lived.' 'That is admitting something,' burst out Fulton, who had sat like a statue, watching the little man's volubility. 'Men and their works,' continued Fulton, 'must be judged by the period in which they lived. Each improvement, as it succeeds the last, is aided by its predecessor, and altogether they make out the chain of science.' `'But,' said Uncle Ben, 'all this talk don't get me on my way to Boston. That is my birth-place. I was there for the last time in 1763, and you know that according to the provisions of my will, there is more than four millions pounds sterling of my money, which has by this time been disposed of by the State somehow.' Uncle Ben was always a shrewd fellow in the way of dollars and cents, and I could see he was very anxious about that money. 'Oho! oho!' said the little man; 'so you are Ben Franklin, and you are the old gentleman who left that legacy. We've got a portrait of you up stairs, more than two hundred years old, and it does look like you. Glad to see you! You said something in your life-time about immersing yourself in a cask of Madeira wine with a few friends, and coming to the world in a hundred years again. These are your friends, I suppose?' 'These gentlemen,' replied Uncle Ben, 'are John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, signers of the Declaration of Independence.' 'The other gentleman,' continued I, 'is Robert Fulton, whom you have spoken of.' 'Well, I declare!' ejaculated the little man, 'this is a meeting! But about that legacy, Uncle Ben, of yours; two millions sterling of it has gone to build the Gutta Percha Magnetic Telegraph line, connecting Boston with London and Paris, two of the largest cities in the Eastern Republic of Europe.' 'Gutta percha! magnetic telegraph! -- Republic of Europe!' repeated all of them. 'All built under water, and sustained by buoys,' continued the little man, 'and it works to a charm -- plan up stairs in room 204 -- and can be seen in a moment; and as I told you before, it writes the English language as fast as my deputy.' 'Republic of Europe!' exclaimed Jefferson, again. 'Yes, Sir,' said the little man, 'for more than a century. No more thrones; no more rulers by divine right; no more governments sustained by powder and ball; no lords nor nobles; man is man, not merely one of a class of men, but individually [Pg 139] man, with rights as perfect and powers as great as any other man. The principles, Jefferson, of your Declaration, which you did not create, but only asserted, have prostrated every arbitrary government on the globe. Even the Jews, since their return to Jerusalem, have organized a republican form of government, and have just elected Mr. Noah President.' 'Well,' thinks I to myself, 'that can't be Mordecai M. Noah, [footnote 2] anyhow, for politics must have used up his constitution before this.' But the little man chattered away, and declared that Europe was divided into two republics, the Eastern and Western; that Constantinople was the capital of the Western; that Africa and Asia were also republican; until the three signers of the Declaration, perfectly wrought up to a phrenzy of joy, rose up from their seats, took off their hats, and swinging them round, gave, 'Three cheers for '76, and the old Army of the Revolution!' -- and I verily believe Uncle Ben forgot all about that money, and about going to Boston, for he did not allude to it any more in my presence.

'Great changes these!' continued the little man, 'from your days. But you must not think, gentlemen, that we have forgotten you or your services, while we have improved in wisdom and strength. Look here, gentlemen,' and he motioned us away, and leading on, he conducted us to an observatory on the top of the building. Such a prospect I never before beheld. Away, around, on every side, stretched a mighty city, whose limits the eye could not reach. Towers, temples, spires and masts succeeded towers, temples, spires and masts, until they were lost in the distant haze. Canals traversed every street, and boats of merchandise were loading and unloading their freights. Steam-carriages were puffing along the roads that ran by the canal, some filled with pleasure parties, and some laden with goods. Turning my eye to an elevation, I saw fifty-six gigantic monuments, whose peaks were nearly lost in the sky, ranged in a line, all alike in form and sculpture. 'These,' said the little man, 'were erected to the Signers of the Declaration of Independence;' and taking out his telescope, he handed it to Uncle Ben, who read aloud among the inscriptions the names, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams! `But let us know what this city is called? inquired Jefferson. 'This, Sir, is called Columbiana; it lies on the west bank of the Mississippi, population five millions, according to the last census.' 'But what supports it?' 'Supports it! The great East India trade. That vessel down there is direct from Canton, by ship canal across the Isthmus. All Europe is secondary to us now. No doubling capes, as was done in your day. Yonder stands the Capitol; and the whole North American continent is annually represented there. The city of San Francisco alone sends forty-four members. There,' continued he, pointing his finger, 'that balloon [Pg 140] rising slowly in the sky has just started for that place, and the passengers will take their dinner there to-morrow.'

Jefferson asked the little man 'whether the Federalists or Democrats were in power?' -- and I saw that Adams waked up when he heard the question. 'Don't know of any such division,' replied he. 'The great measure of the day, upon which the parties are divided, is the purchase of the South American continent at five hundred millions of dollars. I go for it; and before another year the bargain will be consummated. We must have more territory -- we haven't got half enough. Extent of territory gives a nation dignity and importance. The old thirteen States of your day, gentlemen, was a mere cabbage-patch, and should have been consolidated into one State. Ten or twenty days' sail ran you plump into a hostile port, and then you had a demand for duty. Besides, conflicting interests always brew up difficulties, and then come treaties, and finally war, and then debt, and at last oppressive taxation. A nation should own all the territory that joins it. The ocean is the only natural boundary for a people.' Thinks I, 'You have been a politician in your day, and I'll just engage you to correspond with a certain New-York editor, [footnote 3] who shall be nameless; you strike off the doctrine boldly!'

Uncle Ben told the little man, after he closed, that a nation might 'get so very ripe as to become a little rotten; and if he had no objection, he would present him with the 'Sayings of Poor Richard.' And suiting the action to the word, he pushed his hand into his breeches pocket, and pulled out an old almanac, printed at Philadelphia, in 1732, and bowing, handed it to him. The little man thanked him, and promised to deposit it in the Museum, as a curious piece of antiquity.

Getting somewhat anxious for a smoke, I drew forth a cigar and 'locofoco,' [footnote 4] rubbed the latter across my boot, which flashed out its light full in Uncle Ben's face. 'That is nice,' exclaimed he; 'rather an improvement on the old string, wheel and tinder plan.' 'Simple, too, isn't it?' said I; 'and yet all the science of your day didn't detect it.' Just then I gave a puff, which made Uncle Ben sneeze; and he broke out in a tirade against tobacco, that would read well. But I told him there was no use; men had smoked and chewed the weed -- would smoke and chew it, economy or no economy, health or no health, filth or no filth; and that in all probability the last remnant of the great American Republic, for succeeding nations to gaze at, would be a plug of tobacco; for I sincerely believed that tobacco would outlive the government itself.

The little man proposed returning into the Patent-Office, and exhibiting to us in detail the models of the art there deposited. But I cannot weary the reader with what I saw there. The fruits of every year, since the organization [Pg 141] of the department, were divided into rooms, and indicated on the door by an inscription. There were thousands of improvements in every branch of science, many of which were so simple, that I thought myself a fool that I did not discover them long ago. Principles were applied, the very operation of which I now recollected to have often seen, yet without a thought of their practical utility. I came to the conclusion that accident was the parent of more that I saw than design; 'for how,' reasoned I, 'is it possible that these pieces of machinery could otherwise have escaped the great men who have lived and died in ignorance of them?'

By this time we were quite fatigued, and Uncle Ben complained a little of the 'stone,' which he said he was subject to. The little man gave him some 'Elixir of Life,' as he called it, being, as he said, `an extract of the nutritious portion of meats and vegetables, purged from their grossness as found in their natural state;' and while we were sipping it, he launched forth upon its great benefit to mankind; the money saved that used to be expended in cookery and transportation -- millions upon millions; the great economy in time, formerly squandered in eating, etc., etc.; and he wound up his eulogy by presenting each of us with a bottle, which I carefully put away in my pocket.

Adams then rose up, and said he must leave, and Jefferson, Uncle Ben, and Fulton followed. 'But,' said Jefferson, 'I have a word to say on my departure. There is one thing, of more value than all I have seen, for it is the father of all: you should reverence it next to the Creator of all the Universe. Overlook it not in prosperity, nor despair of it in adversity. It is The Union. Better perish with the Union, than survive its ruin!' And in a moment Uncle Ben, Fulton, Adams, Jefferson, the little man, the apartments, wheels and machinery began to rock, and heave, and fade, and finally dissolve; and suddenly I awoke! It was a dream! -- and there I sat, my tormentor affirming that his stove was perfection, that it would save three-fourths of the wood, etc., etc., until, out of patience, I pronounced him a blockhead, gave him a kick, put on my hat, and departed.

Constantine, (Mich.)

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