Patent History Materials Index - The Patent Office and its Mission, By Aza Arnold

Extract from The National Recorder of Religious and Literary Intelligence, Volume I, No. 2 pp 29-30, Washington, D.C., February 1859

(Written for the National Recorder)
The Patent Office and its Mission
By Aza Arnold
Solicitor of Patents, Washington, D.C.

As we approach, we take a glance at the structure which fronts on F street four hundred and eight feet, and on Seventh and Ninth, each two hundred and seventy five feet, thus occupying a space of one hundred and twelve thousand eight hundred and eighty-five square feet. The high porticoes, with double rows of massive Doric columns, the long ranks of pilasters standing on the solid basement, with their plain architrave, broad frieze, deep coping and cornices, composed of white marble, the just keeping and symmetry of design, all combine to impress one with the idea of majesty and durability. We have none of the profusion of ornament that characterizes the Composite order, or the grotesque contortions of design that painfully pervade the Gothic style. There is no lofty spire, as an emblem of monarchy; no flanking with towers, as symbols of aristocracy; but a republican simplicity and harmony seem to pervade the whole exterior.

We might imagine that the architect who planned and executed the edifice was imbued with the spirit of our nationality, that the files of pilasters represent the sovereignties of the different States, and the three porticoes the three co-ordinate branches of the Federal Government, while the majestic entablature covers and connects the whole as a canopy, like the American Constitution.

We pass into the capacious hall, but time and space forbid us to give a minute description; suffice it to say, the whole interior arrangement seems to be well adapted for the use intended. From the splendid marble columns, the high-arched ceilings, with rich, beautiful fresco of light and shade, which delude the eye and weary the imagination, we turn to view the intention, the rise and progress of the Institution.

Knowledge is power; and the greatest worldly benefit we can confer on the people is to induce them to exercise their faculties and develop their latent energies. For those who advance beyond their predecessors must do it by self-culture, and not by the beaten track of imitation. The science, the literature, and the utility of their inventions, constitute the wealth and grandeur of a nation. Barbarous or savage tribes may be eminently warlike, proud, and arrogant, but it requires sagacity of intellect to foster and cultivate the higher and nobler faculties of mind, and to enable men to apply with facility the powers of nature to the promotion of the comforts of man.

Our fathers, in their wisdom and patriotism, established a Constitution. By the Constitution, (article first, section eighth,) Government exercises "the power to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times, to authors and inventors, the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

April, 1790, Congress passed an act authorizing the Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Attorney General, or any two of them, to grant patents in the name of the people, tested by the President. The papers, specifications, and models, were to be deposited in the office of the Secretary of State, but no provision was made for a superintendent, or head of the bureau. This act was repealed in 1793, and a new law passed, which conferred the power to grant patents solely upon the Secretary of State. In 1802, the Secretary of State appointed Dr. William Thornton the Superintendent. Dr. Thornton remained in the position until his demise, which occurred in 1827. [No. 1828 KWD] The business of the office during this time was loosely conducted; few records were kept, the Doctor acting as examiner and judge. In 1828, Thomas P. Jones was appointed to the Superintendency, and he was succeeded, in 1830, by Dr. J.D. Craig, who remained in office till 1836. [No. 1835 KWD] July 4, 1836, a law was passed entirely remodeling the office, and repealing the former acts. The law provided for a Commissioner, chief clerk, an examiner, and three other clerks, one of whom must be a competent draughtsman, and a machinist. There are other important provisions relating to the application for patents still in force, but which are not necessary to be repeated here. The Commissioner of Patents, unlike the heads of other bureaus, reports annually to Congress, and not to the Secretary.

From time to time, the clerical force has been increased, until now there are twelve examiners, at a salary of &2,500 each; twelve assistant examiners, at a salary of &1,800; a superintendent of the "agricultural department," a librarian, thirty-four clerks, machinists, etc.; still, so great is the business, that this force is inadequate to the requirements of the office.

Henry L. Ellsworth was the first Commissioner. He devoted himself with industry and ability to the organization of the office. He also established the agricultural division, now become so useful and important. He remained in office seven years, and was succeeded by Mr. Edmund Burke, who bestowed much labor on the office. Mr. Thomas Ewbank succeeded Mr. Burke, in 1849. His reports evince industry and ability; his successor was Mr. Silas Hodge, who remained but a short time in office.

Col. Charles Mason was the next Commissioner, and we may say, without disparagement to his predecessors, brought to the office eminent acquirements and ability. He was succeeded by the present able and efficient incumbent, J. Holt, Esq.

The first patent was issued in July, 1790; from that date to 1800, the average annual number issued was ninety-one; and in 1820 it reached two hundred; in 1830 it was five hundred and thirty-five. But a change of principle and rigid examination took place, which led to a reduction of the proportion of patents granted, as compared with the number of applications, and two thousand and twenty-four patents issued. The number is still annually increasing, so that in 1858, from January 1st to September 30th, four thousand and ninety-one applications were made, and two thousand eight hundred and sixteen patents issued.

On the 15th of December, 1836, fire was discovered in the building occupied by the Patent office and Post Office. Mr. A. Kendall, Postmaster General, with some assistance, was enabled to save records and documents from the Post Office, but so rapid were the flames that nothing was saved from the Patent Office.

Hon. M. [sic] Ruggles, chairman of the investigating committee of the Senate, in his report, alluding to the destruction of models, drawings and records, says: "They not only embraced the whole history of American invention for half a century, but were the muniments of property of vast amount." "The Patent Office contained also the largest and most interesting collection of models in the world."

The number of models destroyed were 7,000. Some 1,500 have subsequently been restored by the patentees, at the expense of Government. This was twenty-two years ago, and now the number of patented models in the hall exceeds 30,000, and the rejected models exceed 35,000. The sum charged for a patent to an American citizen is thirty dollars, which must be paid when the application is made; to a foreigner, the sum varies in accordance with the sum charged by the various Governments. A slight search in the records of the Office will discover many curious and absurd applications and patents. The variety of subjects for which patents are sought is incredible. We might select a few specimens of the most common, as an illustration.

There are three hundred and seventy-six threshing machines patented, three hundred and twenty-seven water-wheels, and three hundred and nine washing-machines. Upwards of sixty seed-planters have been patented within the year 1858. We have evidence that the stimulus afforded to invention can hardly be appreciated, or its results estimated. For instance, what would have been the state of our great cotton culture, if it had not been for the saw-gin or its equivalent? Not one-tenth of its present value would have been realized.

Neither could our Western States have been settled with anything like their present prosperity, without the invention of steam navigation; nor could the present extent of wheat fields be cultivated by the limited number of laborers without the reaper. The interchange of the products of different countries increases wealth; so the interchange and illustration of scientific truths increase knowledge. The perfection to which mechanism has recently arrived, in the lens, the microscope, the telescope, etc., gives to philosophy new fields for exploration, and to astronomy new worlds for contemplation. By cultivating the arts, stimulating the genius, and fostering the spirit of progress, oceans have been sounded, winds and currents classified, and time and space discarded from the field of communication. The world has arrived at this conclusion, that whatever article has been made by the hand of man, can (if suitable encouragement be afforded) be made by machinery. Notwithstanding the murmurs that we hear from egotistic vanity or disappointed ambition, we may congratulate the inventors and agriculturists with the assurance that under the guidance of the present judicious Commissioner the affairs of this bureau are progressing with harmony. An increasing interest is evinced by the increased number of applications from all parts of the country, and the popularity of the institution is augmented by that prominent feature, the agricultural branch.

Within the last few years, Congress has made appropriations for collecting statistics in regard to agriculture, and for the importation of seeds and plants for gratuitous distribution in the States. The amounts appropriated for the last ten years were:

1849   &3,500           1854    &35,000

1850    4,500           1855     25,000

1851    5,500           1856    105,000

1852    5,000           1857     63,000

1853    5,000           1858     60,000

With these means, and by co-operating with the Smithsonian Institution and with the National Agricultural Society, a great amount of useful information has been collected, numerous seeds and plants from foreign countries have been introduced, some of which promise to be of vast importance. For instance, the teas of China, the sorghum, the grapes of France, Spain and Italy, the cotton of India, the sugar cane of South America, to which may soon be added coffee, cocoa, indigo, madder, cochineal, fine-wooled sheep, and alpacca goats, for all of which we have abundance of genial soil and climate. When we consider the importance of agriculture, the foundation that underlies all other industrial pursuits, we feel it to be a momentous subject, and that Congress by appropriating a few thousands is giving an impulse in the right direction. While on one hand machinery is introduced to facilitate labor, on the other hand new sources of wealth are opened to the farmer, in the culture of the vine and sugar cane, and all kinds of fruits and cereals. We close this sketch by the following extract from the report of the Hon Secretary of the Interior to his Excellency the President of the United States:

"The operations of the Patent Office furnish the most gratifying proof of our progress as a people in all the useful arts. The rewards which genius here secures revive the heart and strengthen the resolutions of the inventors of our country, who have already accomplished so much for its reputation and prosperity. The ability, industry, and efficiency, with which the complicated duties of this office have been met and disposed of, deserve your favorable consideration. Although the business is heavy, yet I have heard no complaint of delay in its dispatch. The income of the office for the three quarters ending September 30, 1858, was &150,983.91. Its expenditure during the same term was &144,433,47; showing a surplus of revenue over expenditures of &6,550.44, against an excess of expenditure over the receipts of &2,526 for the corresponding quarters of 1857."


<< Return to Patent History Materials Index