Unwanted Treasures Of The Patent Office

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After 1823 the number of patent models at Blodgett’s Hotel increased until by 1836 there were about 7,000 of them, lodged against more than 10,000 patents issued. A committee of Congress reporting on the need for a new building declared that “a great number of them, supposed to be 500, from want of room, have been stowed away in a dark garret.” (It was an ominous precedent.) In July, 1836, a law was passed allowing for construction of the new building. Ground had hardly been broken, six months later, when at three o’clock on the morning of December 15 fire was discovered in the Post Office section of Blodgett’s Hotel. Within a matter of hours the building was burned to the ground, and with it went every record and every model owned by the Patent Office.

Describing the calamity, a Senate investigating committee spoke ruefully of “a pride which must now stand rebuked by the improvidence which exposed so many memorials and evidences of the superiority of American genius to the destruction which has overtaken them.” And Congress, perhaps impressed by this rhetoric, promptly appropriated $100,000 for restoration of “3,000 of the most important [models] … which will form a very interesting and valuable collection.”

At first Patent Commissioner Henry L. Ellsworth worked diligently both at having the burned models restored or rebuilt and at outfitting the showrooms of the new Patent Office. Shortly, however, he complained to the secretary of state, under whose department his office came, that many inventors had failed to co-operate and that it was impossible to remake the models without their help. This was particularly true of such inventions as the plow with cannon for handles to fight off sudden Indian attack—of which the burnt model was the only one ever made.

But if Ellsworth was thwarted by the apathy of inventors when it came to restoring models, he was overcome by their enthusiasm for submitting new ones. The new Patent Office building at Seventh to Ninth between F and G was only partially completed by 1844, but already the Commissioner was forced to complain that unless the job were hurried the collection of models would force the working staff out onto the street. “The increase of models renders daily the transaction of business more difficult,” Ellsworth wrote in his annual report. (In fact, he was so discouraged by the influx of new models that he managed to spend only $25,588.91 of the $100,000 appropriated for restoration of the old ones.)

By 1856, however, three wings of the new building were completed. Its great halls, the east and west wings, were fitted out as showrooms, and the building again became a tourist attraction, a display of national ingenuity.

Then came the Civil War. Invention was fantastically stimulated. Models, which had been coming in by the hundreds every year, now arrived by the thousands. Several of them came each day to each of the twenty examiners and were thrown on shelves until papers were completed and issued. Then, just as quickly, the models were tagged with basic information and carted to the galleries, unclassified, where higgledy-piggledy they were tossed into a case or onto another shelf. An army shoe would land next to a drill; a corset beside a sword.

By 1876, William H. Doolittle, acting commissioner of patents, reported that the building was so clogged with models that the public had been barred from seeing them for lack of room.

He estimated that 175,000 models had been crowded into the galleries and that they were increasing by 13,000 to 14,000 a year. “Immediate relief,” he said, “is necessary.” Even though a law of 1870 had made the submission of models discretionary, it appeared the Commissioner had not wanted to take upon himself the responsibility for rejecting them. But neither could he function in their midst.

Temporary relief came on September 24, 1877, when fire again broke out in the Patent Office. Although the blaze was confined to the west and north wings, and neither of them was destroyed, 160 cases of models, estimated to contain 76,000 in all, were ruined.

Some of these were replaced through a $45,000 appropriation, and still new ones poured in. Finally the law had to be changed again, this time to prohibit the sending of a model unless demanded by the Patent Commissioner.

But still no record was made of how many models had been restored or even how many were in the Patent Office, and estimates varied by as many as 25,000, depending on whether the guesser was a patent examiner tripping over them while trying to do a day’s work or a congressman looking to save the price of renting some place to put them. It is known, however, that 246,094 patents had been issued by 1880 and that perhaps 200,000 of them were represented by models. Added to these were thousands of models which had accompanied applications that were never completed.

By 1893 the Patent Office estimate appears to have won out, for that year Congress allowed the renting of the Union Building at G Street between Sixth and Seventh streets, N.W. No attempt was made to arrange the models for display in the Union Building. They were simply stored in fantastic disarray throughout the building, even though Congress was under the impression it was paying for an exhibition hall.