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The History of Paper Patents



Unofficial Gazette
06/04/02
On March 27, the Education Committee of the Patent and Trademark Office Society (PTOS) sponsored a lunchtime presentation on the history of paper patents. Jim Davie, the “unofficial historian” of the Patent and Trademark Office, spoke to a capacity crowd of over fifty attendees and recounted the early history of patents. With the Patent Act of 1790, a panel consisting of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph reviewed and either granted or denied a patent (there were no appeals to their decision). Due to the other duties of the panel members, patent pendency increased and the United States switched to a registration system with the Patent Act of 1793. Nearly 10,000 patents were issued from 1790 until the Patent Act of July 4, 1836; however, these patents were not numbered (they were referred to by the name of the inventor and the date issued).

The Patent Act of 1836 provided for an examination of the patent applications and the start of the numbering system for the issued patents. Therefore, U.S. Patent Number 1 in our database is dated July 13, 1836 and issued to John Ruggles (a Senator instrumental in the new patent legislation). The name and date patents were subsequently renumbered chronologically with the addition of an “X” after the number (so the first patent issued in 1790 is now numbered 1X). Unfortunately, on December 15, 1836, Blodgett’s Hotel (then home to the Patent Office) caught fire and all the patents on file were destroyed. The Patent Office then hired a number of draftsmen and invited the patent owners to bring their documentation to the office in order to reconstruct or restore the patents.

Approximately 2,845 patents were reconstructed and numbered; but the name and date list being used (which was the copy that had been sent to Congress) apparently was not complete. As inventors brought in documentation of patents not on the list, the office had to resort to fractional numbers to keep the X-patent numbering sequence in chronological order. So, today, there are numerous “half” patents and even some “quarter”, “three-quarter”, and “seven-eighths” patents.

There were also no drawing standards until the office began the routine printing of patents in 1871. So the sizes of the drawings in the pre-1871 patents ranged from half sheets to folio-size drawings. Some of the drawings were also done in watercolors. After 1871, the office redrew many of the over-sized drawings to fit on standard-size paper.

There is so much more history to present; but the limitation of an hour presentation allowed Jim to only touch on other matters including the Patent Office of the Confederate States of America, the short-lived Additional Improvement (AI) Patents, and the Design Patents. Jim is always eager to share information about patent history and I’m sure we’ll learn more from him in the future.