Unwanted Treasures Of The Patent Office

While the British were busily engaged in putting the torch to Washington on the evening of August 24, 1814, Dr. William Thornton, superintendent of the Patent Office, stood aghast by a window in Georgetown watching the Capitol, of which he was the chief designer, go up in flames. But the next morning, when he learned that the Patent Office too was threatened with fire, he mounted a horse and dashed back into the city, one of the first Americans to return.

Quickly he approached a Colonel Jones, who had been assigned to burn that part of the city, and begged that Blodgett’s Hotel, which a few years before had become the Patent Office and museum for its models, be spared from the flames. According to his own report, he stood amid the smoldering ruins of the city and successfully overwhelmed the Britisher by charging that the destruction of “the building … which contained … hundreds of models of the arts … would be as barbarous as formerly to burn the Alexandrian Library for which the Turks have since been condemned by all enlightened nations.” Blodgett’s Hotel was the only government building spared in the razing of Washington.

This seems to have been the high point of the federal government’s concern for its collection of patent models, which since that time has been decimated by three other fires, two federal economy waves, three auctions, a bankruptcy, and a sale at Gimbels.

Seven weeks before the last of the thirteen original states ratified the Constitution, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph became the Patent Commission. When they opened for business on April 10, 1790, they immediately established the requirement that a working model of each invention, done in miniature, be submitted as part of the application.

This requirement was kept in force until 1870, when a change in the law was made necessary by quarters so bulging with models that there was no room for examiners, and the submission of a model was made discretionary with the commissioner of patents. By 1880 the requirement was dropped altogether with the wry exception of flying machines—for which the requirement was also dropped after 1903 and Kitty Hawk. (But the Patent Office still demands physical proof of the pudding before it will issue a patent for a perpetual motion machine.)

From the very start the models—the idea for which sounds like a Jeffersonian notion—became a tail that wagged the dog. Their number and bulk dictated the division’s move in 1810 from an office in the Department of State to Blodgett’s Hotel. Congress had appropriated $10,000 to purchase the hotel and $3,000 to renovate it, insisting that the two larger of four rooms assigned to the Patent Office be devoted to displaying the models. The rest of the building, except for two smaller rooms, was given over to the General Post Office.

Congress would brook no untidiness in the exhibition. A committee reported within three months of the appropriation that “although many models have already been deposited in their new quarters, the manner in which they are placed tends to confusion and to sink the establishment into contempt. It is hoped that habit will not operate to make this perpetual.”

The chiding was effective, and Blodgett’s Hotel, which had originally housed the United States Theater, the first in Washington, regained and even surpassed its earlier fame as a point of interest for travelers to the capital. Foreign visitors were shown the models as a proud demonstration of American inventiveness, and on Sundays it became a local custom to stroll through the rooms and see what was new.

But, even though the models were the focal point of interest in the Patent Office, no record of their kind or number appears to have been made until January 21, 1823, when, for no apparent reason, a clerk at least attempted a listing.

His catalogue showed a nation still more concerned with agriculture and building pursuits than with industrial development. It listed 95 nail cutters, 66 pumps, and 65 plows as against 45 looms, 28 spinning machines, and 3 boring machines. Of “propelling boats” there were 38; of carding machines, 8; of threshing machines, 20; and of winnowing machines, 25. There were 13 bridges, 26 sawmills, 17 water mills, 7 windmills, 14 steam mills, 26 water wheels, 56 presses, 3 stocking looms, 10 fire engines, 1 machine for making barrels. 6 flax-dressing machines, 6 file-cutting machines, 16 cloth-shearing machines, 10 straw cutters, 12 locks, and 2 guns. The specific listings came to 635 and evidently so exhausted the cataloguer that he lumped the remaining 1,184 models as for “various other purposes” and gave a total of 1,819 models in all.

This was the only listing of the models ever made—with the exception of one which was paid for in 1908 but which, when it was sorely needed in 1925, could not be found.