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.
[to top of second column
in this article]
History sometimes repeats itself. I said, history sometimes
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
Here are a few other details that you might not know about
- 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
- 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.
Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. He can be
reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright Paul Niemann 2004