How many patents were destroyed in the 1836 fire at the U.S. Patent Office?
#121007. Asked by serpa. (Apr 07 11 12:19 AM)
All of them (about 10,000 or so) of which 2,845 were restored.|
Great Patent Fire of 1836
The next time we faced fire, it was not from an act of war or malice, but from something which nearly every child now recognizes as something we should not do - the careless handling of ashes from fireplaces. It was in 1836, an otherwise very good year for the Patent Office, that the Great Fire struck.
On July 4, 1836, the Patent Act of 1836 (5 Stat. 117) created the first Patent Office as a separate organization within the Department of State. Henry Leavitt Ellsworth was named as the organization's very first Commissioner and immediately began construction of a new fire-proof building just for the Patent Office. While awaiting completion of the new building, the Patent Office shared quarters with the General Post Office and Washington City Post Office. All 10,000 or so patent records and several thousand patent models were housed in about two fifths of the first floor, all of the second and all of the third floor of this shared building, known as Blodgett's Hotel ...
That spark finally came from something that employees of both the City Post Office and the Patent Office had been warned against doing. It was the practice by City Post Office clerks of storing ashes in the cellar hallway and by Patent Office messengers who stored ashes in a wooden box in the corner of the fuel room. The messengers and clerks were warned, but there was no trash pickup and nowhere else to put the ashes but in the street, which is what the General Post Office employees did do. Warnings were disregarded without consequence and it was our undoing.
At 3:00 in the morning on December 15, 1836, a messenger who was quartered in the building awoke to suffocating smoke. He roused others in the building who searched for the source of the smoke and finally found it coming from the cellar. The few employees who could get there in time tried in vain to enter the Patent Office portion of the building, encountering blocked doors, heavy smoke and windows too high to get to. While some folks ran for help, others began removing those records that they could get to from the Post Offices.
The fire engine was called. After all, it was right on the corner, but it had been 16 years since the equipment was bought and things had fallen into disrepair. The volunteers quickly found that the leather hose had disintegrated and the fire pump was useless. They desperately formed a bucket brigade while others ran to another fire station to get working equipment. By the time a working fire engine arrived, it was too late. The building was doomed after the first 15 to 20 minutes of the fire and people could do little more than protect the surrounding buildings from being swallowed up by the inferno.
Everything in the Patent Office was lost to the Great Fire, including the musical instrument saved by Dr. Thornton in 1814. Our predecessors were faced with the mammoth task of restoring records and patent models. There were no patent records at hand save those in the mind of our single patent examiner and a book that a draftsman named William Steiger had borrowed from the Patent Office despite official rules that prohibited their removal from the Office. It was an instance where not following the rules actually saved a little bit of history.
In the 46 years prior to the Great Fire, the United States government had issued about 10,000 patents. Most of these could never be revived again, but Congress acted to restore those records that could be reconstructed from private files and reproduce models which were deemed critical. Patents whose records were not restored were cancelled. There were a total of 2,845 patents restored, most of which were eventually given a number beginning with "X". All patents after the date of the establishment of the Patent Office in July 1836 were numbered as a new series (without the X), beginning with a new Patent No. 1 to John Ruggles. A small number of the new series patents had been destroyed in the Great Fire but they were quickly recovered from their owners' records.
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