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Fire at U.S. patent office destroys
nearly all patent records
By Paul Niemann

[NOV. 4, 2004]  Now that I have your attention, let me explain what happened. The fire that destroyed the patent office occurred in 1836.

What makes it interesting is the situation in which the fire occurred.

The patent office was housed in the same Washington, D.C., building as the fire department and the post office. The building was known as Blodgett's Hotel. On cold days, people would burn firewood to heat the buildings. In order to reduce the chance of fire, patent office employees stored the wood in the basement. As long as there was nothing to provide a spark, there was little chance of fire.

Unfortunately, the post office clerks in the building also stored ashes in a box in a corner of the fuel room. At 3 in the morning of Dec. 15, ashes spread and ignited the fuel room. This shouldn't have developed into a major fire since the fire department was in the same building, but the fire hose was 16 years old and in such bad shape that it was useless. No one knew the hose's condition until they had to use it the morning of the fire.

The fire destroyed all 10,000 patents and a few thousand patent models. At the time, the patent office didn't number the patents, but it did require each inventor to submit a working model of his invention. Eventually, 2,845 patent files were recovered. These were then given a number beginning with the letter X (as in the "X-Files"?). The patents that were never recovered were canceled.

Ironically, the patent office was located in this building only temporarily because a new, fireproof building was being built when the fire occurred.

The Great Fire of 1836 caused the patent office to begin numbering all new patents. Today most patented consumer products have their patent numbers printed on the packaging or on the actual product. The patent office issues more than 100,000 patents each year, and it recently issued Patent 6,700,000.

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History sometimes repeats itself. I said, history sometimes repeats itself.

In 1877, a second fire occurred at the patent office. By then the office was in the new "fireproof" building that was being built when the 1836 fire occurred. The 1877 fire caused much more damage than the 1836 fire did, but no patents were lost that time because the office had begun the practice of making copies of each new patent filing.

Here are a few other details that you might not know about patents:

  • The very first patent issued in the United States went to Samuel Hopkins of Vermont in 1790 for his method of making potash. The fee was only $4! Today, patent fees start at approximately $4,000.
  • After the 1836 fire, John Ruggles received U.S. Patent 1 for his invention of traction wheels.
  • The first patent in the world was issued to architect Filippo Brunelleschi of Florence, Italy, in 1421 for his method of transporting goods up a river.
  • The first known female patent holder in the U.S. was Mary Kies in 1809 for her process of weaving straw with silk. Women were not allowed to own property, including patents, during parts of the 1700s and early 1800s.
  • In 1890, fewer than 1 percent of U.S. patents were issued to women. Today, women account for 15 percent of the more than 100,000 utility patents issued to individual inventors each year.
  • Thomas Jennings became the first black man to receive a patent in 1821, and he used some of the earnings from his patent to purchase his family out of slavery.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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