On this day in 1790, the United States government issued a patent to Samuel Hopkins for an improvement in the means of making potash and pearl ash. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution of the United States of America provides the Congress the power to pass laws to protect intellectual property.
However, neither the Constitution, nor the first federal law concerning patents, provided for a separate agency to administer this system. Instead, the decision to grant a patent was left with three high-level federal officials–the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General. This law was repealed by the law of February 21, 1793, which assigned the responsibility for reviewing petitions and granting patents solely to the Secretary of State. Under both laws the Secretary of State was charged with maintaining all records associated with the granting of the patent, including descriptions and models submitted by the applicant. In 1802, Secretary Madison reorganized the patent section of the department and created a position to administer the granting of patents and the maintenance of records. This position was later designated the Superintendent of Patents. William Thornton, a physician, and one of Washington’s first polymaths who in addition to being a doctor designed the U.S. Capitol as the first Architect of the Capitol, was appointed to the position on June 1, 1802, and would serve until his death in 1828.
The granting of patents for inventions in what became the United States began in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1640s. After the conclusion of the War for Independence some states provided for the issuance of patents. The provision in the Constitution was explained by James Madison in Federalist 43.
Americans proved to be an inventive people and by 1810 the number of patent files had become too large for the allotted space. In that year, the government purchased Blodgett’s Hotel, a large building in the Penn Quarter area of Washington. The building, which was never a hotel, also was the general post office for Washington, and after the British burnt Washington in 1814, it served, for a year, as the temporary meeting quarters for the House of Representatives and of the Senate. By 1836, the descriptions and models for over 10,000 patent applications were stored in the building.
The story of how the collection was saved in 1814 involves Superintendent Thornton. It is said that on the night of August 24, 1814, when the British forces were setting fire to the public buildings in Washington Thornton challenged a unit preparing to fire a cannon at the building. In his passion he interposed himself between the cannon and the building and told the men manning the weapon that it contained the records of the patents granted by the government and destroying the records would be a crime against all the world. Another account has him merely reasoning with the commanding officer at the scene. However he managed to do it, Thornton’s intervention was successful and the building and its contents were spared.
Tragically, in December 1836, the building and records were destroyed by a fire that started in the basement. Records for almost 10,000 patents, and 7,000 patent models, were lost, however, through subsequent submissions by patent holders, records for 2,845 patents were restored. A large new fire-proof building was authorized to replace the old building. Although it would take several decades to complete, portions of the new building opened for use in the decades before the Civil War. In addition to the Patent Office, the building provided space for other government agencies, and was the site of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball in 1865.
In 1932 the Patent Office, and its contents, were relocated to the Herbert Clark Hoover Building, which also houses the Department of Commerce. In 1967, the Patent and Trademark Office moved again, this time to Northern Virginia. The current headquarters building opened in late 2003.