Patent History Materials Index - Duncan's Travels through the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819

Extract from Travels through part of The United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819 by John M. Duncan, A.B. In two volumes, Vol I
New York, W.B. Gilley, 92, Broadway
New Haven, Howe & Spalding, 1823


Letter IX


Washington, September, 1818

I have now the honour of addressing you from the metropolis of the United States. ...

Hitherto the city does not contain above fourteen thousand inhabitants, but these have taken root in so many different places, that the public crier, a black man whom I have just seen performing the duties of his calling, is obliged to make the circuit on horseback. ...

A short way from the Capitol, Pennsylvania Avenue is crossed by the Tiber, a little muddy stream, or creek according to American phraseology, which filters through flags and rushes into the Potowmak. A wooden bridge is thrown over it, but the stage driver who brought me from Baltimore preferred fording the stream, to cool the feet of his horses. Moore in one of his poetical epistles dated from the "Modern Rome," makes a sarcastic allusion to this classic stream, but, if Weld is correct, the name was given it by some early settler, before the site was chosen for the Federal city, and therefore its founders are not answerable for what at first seems a piece of ridiculous affectation.

As the Capitol and the President's house are both of freestone, we are rather disappointed to find them covered with white pain. The grain of the stone is indeed rather coarse, and a good many hard white pebbles are embedded in it, yet the walls would certainly have looked better in their natural colour. The truth is, the buildings were both originally unpainted; but the unceremonious usage which they received from our troops at the capture of the city, so effectually begrimmed their visages that it was found impossible to eradicate the defilement. To have demolished and rebuilt the walls, would have been a very costly expedient, and as the least of two evils, the painter's brush was resorted to; here and there however, above some of the windows, the black wreathings of the smoke are still discernible through the white covering....

The models in the Patent Office would have shared the fate of the Capitol, but for the intercession of the person who had charge of them. He strenuously pled with our officers that they might be spared, representing that they had no relation to warlike affairs, that many of them were ingenious and useful, and that to destroy them would be to wage war against the arts, and against general improvement. This appeal was effectual, and the models were left uninjured. Its success makes one regret that no such intercession took place on behalf of the libraries and national archives, to which the same argument applied with tenfold force. A gentleman who witnessed the whole process of destruction, stated to me his opinion that General Ross would probably have been induced to abstain from the destruction of the Capitol and the President's House, had suitable exertions been made by the civil authorities. The whole of these however, offers of state and local magistrates, regardless of all but their personal safety, took to their heels by common consent, and left the public buildings to their fate. Old Anchises should have shamed them all: --

"Vos agitate fugam!
Me si Coelicolae voluissent ducere vitam,
Has mihi servassent sedes. Satis una, superque,
Vidimus excidia, et captae superavimus urbi."

The Patent Office exhibits a singular assemblage of nicknacks, for the greater part of the models seemed to me to deserve no better appellation, though I dare say they are quite as important as many of those useful inventions which are every month recorded in the corresponding office in London. A boat was pointed out to us which was to be propelled by machinery, but it unfortunately turned out that the machinery was a sufficient load for the boat without any other cargo. The frame of a tent bed made of iron graced another shelf; but the originality of the invention was more than questioned by some wag, who had written on the label affixed to it 'Og King of Bashan had an iron bedstead.' [Deutoronomy 3:11 KWD] Patent churns were numerous; and if you search minutely, patent cradle rockers and patent brooms may also be discovered. Our conductor particularized as an invention of real utility, a machine for cutting iron nails; the introduction of which has completely superseded, throughout the United States, the use of hammered ones.

The expense of obtaining a patent here is only thirty dollars; £6, 15s. sterling. The securing of copyright is a still cheaper process. One copy of the book is deposited in the Secretary of State's office, and a fee of sixty cents, about half a crown, is paid to the clerk of the District where the author resides, for an entry of the claim; another half crown is paid for a certified copy of this entry, which must be advertised for four weeks in the newspapers, and copied at full length on the back of the title page of the book. The term of copyright is fourteen years, but in the event of the author's surviving, a repetition of the same process secures it for another fourteen. There is a good deal of cumbrous and unnecessary machinery in all this, but it is much more favourable to authors and enterprising publishers than the exaction, as with us, of eleven copies of the work however voluminous and expensive. There is one impolitic regulation on this subject; an alien cannot hold copyright until he has resided in the country at least two years at one time. Poor encouragement this for an emigration of authors, to give a start to the national literature! Not only is an alien deprived of the power of personally holding copyright, he cannot even convey a title to another person. Were the 'Great Unknown' to cross the Atlantic, and to continue the manufacture of his literary ware at the usual rate of three publications per year, by which he would at home, according to report, net at least three or four times as many thousands of pounds sterling, for two whole years he could not gain a dollar by his writings; he might publish them, but before three days flew past,

[fn. 2: Rapidity of publication is as well understood in America as anywhere. I copy the following from a New York newspaper which has recently reached me (May, 1823): --

"Despatch in printing. -- The new novel, Peveril of the Peak, was received from England in New York on Monday at Ten A.M. and was printed, published, and sold on Tuesday, within 28 hours after the same was received. Another English copy of the same work was received per the Custom House, New York, at Twelve o'clock on Wednesday -- at One o'clock forwarded to Philadelphia by the mail. In Philadelphia it was printed on Tuesday, and on Friday 2000 copies were put in boards by Six o'clock in the morning. The English copy of Moore's Loves of the Angels was taken out of the Custom House in New York on a Monday in February last, at Eleven o'clock A.M.; was immediately sent to Philadelphia, and 250 copies of the work printed were received at New York on Tuesday following by Eight o'clock A.M. and the same copies were sold and circulated that afternoon.]

two or three pirated editions would make their appearance without his having it in his power to suppress them. There is at least a semblance of good policy in most of the American statutes respecting foreigners, and by some of them considerable advantages are offered to emigrants, but the framers of this law seem to have regarded quilldrivers as a race by no means likely to increase the energies or resources of the nation; and therefore as an effectual barrier to the importation of such learned lumber, they have rendered them incapable of benefiting themselves or even of earning a subsistence by their particular art, for two years after their arrival, proclaiming all that they may produce during this period to be lawful prey to depredators of every kind. The same law applies to patents.


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