Scientific American, v 23 (ns) no 4, p 55, 23 July 1870
How the Heirs of an Inventor may be Rewarded
In the year 1819, Jethro Wood, then of Scipio, N.Y., took out a patent for a cast-iron plow, an implement now very generally used in this country.
Jethro Wood died in poverty after devoting his fortune and his life to the introduction of his improvement; and it may be said, with truth, that few men have conferred a greater benefit on mankind than he did by the invention and practical application of his improvement.
A bill has been recently reported in the House directing the Secretary of the Treasury to pay Phoebe and Sylvia Ann Wood, daughters of Jethro Wood, deceased, in trust for the heirs of Jethro Wood, deceased, the sum of $25,000 out of any moneys in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated.
The report states that the Committee on Patents are satisfied, from the abundant testimony submitted to them, that Jethro Wood practically accomplished for the farmer what Fulton accomplished for the navigator; that like Fulton he died before it was possible for him, under the peculiar circumstances, to reap the reward to which he was entitled. He was the first man who invented and put into practical application and use the cast-iron plow. Singular as it may appear, before this invention the improvements in this much needed implement were made at long intervals of time, and failed to result in any important benefit to mankind.
The report further states that until this invention was made the old-fashioned wooden plow was universally used in this country, with its heavy wrought-iron share offering great resistance and requiring great power of draft. Jethro Wood improved the form of the mold board, constructed the several parts of cast iron, and in such manner that they could be speedily and strongly put together; made the plow far lighter of draft and easier to be guided, and not only reduced the original cost fifteen dollars a plow, but effected a great saving of time and expense which previously became necessary for constant repairs.
The report further states that additional particulars need not be cited, because every agriculturist is familiar with the details of this most useful invention; that it is sufficient to add that the Jethro Wood plow was finally adopted, and in its essential features is in universal use throughout our country. This result, however, was only effected after the struggle through which a meritorious inventor seems always fated to pass. When Jethro Wood made his first improvement, at which he labored many years of his life, until its perfection in 1819, he was known as a rich man, with a homestead of hundreds of acres and a considerable income.
The great prejudice of the farmers against any innovation, the large expense of casting mold boards in many shapes until the desired one was obtained, the necessity of compensating incredulous manufacturers unwilling to assume what they call a great risk, soon deprived him not only of his fortune, but nearly all the profits of his new art which was then beginning to be appreciated.
Nor was this all. In order to convince it was necessary to a certain degree to give a public use to the article. It soon became pirated, and when suits were commenced the then defective state of our patent laws allowed the infringers to escape. In 1839 the law was at last altered so as to permit two years' use of an invention prior to the application of a patent without abandonment to the public; but even then Jethro Wood was met by decisions that this did not apply to patent issued before the passage of the act. It was not until 1845 -- several years after Jethro Wood had died in poverty, leaving a large family totally unprovided for -- that on a full trial before Justice Nelson, of the Circuit Court in Albany, it was decided that the act of 1839 applied to patents granted before its passage; and all the questions of law and fact were determined in favor of the Jethro Wood invention.
Shortly after the patent expired, and on several occasions since, application was made to Congress for its extension in favor of the heirs, being two married and two single daughters of said Wood, and the child and grandchild of the two deceased sons.
In three Congresses as many reports were made upon these applications; and twice a bill passed the Senate granting the extension. But these bills failed in the House, because the farmers, while urging that a money relief should be given to the children of this public benefactor, were unwilling to pay it in the shape of a continued royalty.
The bill reported by the committee offers such relief to a very limited degree, taking into consideration the important progress in this art attained by Jethro Wood and the great benefits he conferred upon the public. But the sum of $25,000, which it gives, will alleviate at least the wants of his family, and show the gratitude of the nation to one whose useful invention has added comfort and wealth as well as honor to the people.
Previous to the passage of the bill, Mr. Randall, of Pennsylvania, raised a point of order for the purpose of inducing the Committee to reduce the amount. He regarded the claim as meritorious, but thought the sum named excessive. The judgment of the House, however, was expressed in favor of the recommendation of the Committee.
At the time the Goodyear heirs were applying for an act of Congress to enable them to secure another extension of the Vulcanized India-rubber patent, we advised them to adopt the very course which has been so successful in behalf of the surviving children of Jethro Wood.
Synopsis of the Amended Patent Law
We have now before us a copy of the law to revise, consolidate, and amend the statutes relating to patents, recently enacted by Congress. It contains no radical changes, but simply codifies the old system, and reduces it into more compact shape. We do not consider it necessary to reprint the entire text of the bill, but will present a summary of its chief features.
The officers provided are a Commissioner, Assistant Commissioner, three Examiners-in-chief, Chief Clerk, Examiner-in-chief of interferences, twenty-two Principal Examiners, twenty-two Assistant Examiners, Librarian, Machinist, five clerks, class 4; six clerks, class 3, fifty clerks, class 2, forty five clerks, class 1; and purchasing clerk.
Additional clerk, male and female, copyists, etc., ad libitum, or according to necessity.
The claims and engravings to be no longer published in the report. The annual report to contain only a list of the patents.
The three Examiners-in-chief required to be persons of competent legal knowledge and scientific ability.
No other persons connected with the Patent Office required to have such qualifications.
Models to be furnished when required by the Commissioner.
The printing of the patents and drawings is authorized, and we trust that the Commissioner will make the work creditable to the advanced state of American art and invention.
All persons may take patents provided the invention has not been in public use for more than two years.
No discrimination is made against Canadians. The law requiring foreigners to put their inventions on sale within eighteen months is abolished.
Assignments void, as against a subsequent purchaser, unless recorded within three months from date.
All cases can be appealed from the Commissioner to the District Court, except interference cases.
In cases where a patent is refused by the District Court, an appeal by bill in equity may be taken.
Disclaimers may be filed.
Designs may be taken by all persons -- no discriminations. This will enable foreign manufacturers to protect themselves against having their designs copied, which has hitherto been quite extensively practiced in this country, especially in the production of textile goods.
Trade-marks may also be protected by firms or individuals, $25 for thirty years, with right of renewal.
The above are the more important changes made by the new law. They are simple, and on the whole commendable.
The Commissioner of Patents Suspends a Patent Agent for Gross Misconduct
Section 17th of the Act approved July 8, 1870, provides "that for gross misconduct the Commissioner may refuse to recognize any person as a patent agent, either generally or in any particular case; but the reasons for such refusal shall be duly recorded and subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior."
The Commissioner, indeed, has had this power since 1861, but during all that time, so far as we know, the penalty has not been inflicted until now upon any agent practicing before the office. Some complaints, however, have been made against agents for irregularities, and we have reason to know that ex-Commissioner Foote had occasion to regret his leniency in one particular case of a Washington agent, who had violated the confidence of the Office by writing to the clients of another agency during the pendency of the application.
The case brought to the notice of Commissioner Fisher was that of a firm styling themselves "McGill, Grant & Co.," of Washington City, who are charged on seven distinct counts with the crime of misappropriating the moneys of their clients, and in maintaining a false correspondence in relation to the progress of business within the Patent Office.
George W. McGill, senior member of the firm, entered a general plea that the irregularities in the practice as complained of, were the result of having entrusted their Patent Office business to an irresponsible and drunken clerk. The Commissioner, however, refused to accept this answer, inasmuch as all the correspondence of the firm appears to have been carried on in McGill handwriting; and the order of the Commissioner is, "that the said firm of McGill, Grant & Co., as well as the said George W. McGill, be hereafter excluded from practicing before the Patent Office in any and all cases."
McGill has appealed to the Secretary of the Interior to examine his case, and the matter is to undergo further investigation by that official, who directs that the publication of the order be suspended.
Death of Thomas Ewbank
Thomas Ewbank, mechanic, author of 'Ewbank's Hydraulics and Mechanics,' and ex-Commissioner of Patents, died in this city on September 16, at the advanced age of 79 years. He had been for some years in feeble health, and his death was not unexpected.
Important Patent Office Decisions
Commissioner Fisher has refused the application of Wm. Mont Storm for an extension of his patent for an improvement in revolving fire-arms. This is one of the applications authorized by Congress to be made after the patent had run out. An extension was granted to Emily J. Lamson, executrix of Daniel Lamson, for improvements in machines for notching hoops. The evidence shows that this invention was a valuable one, and that the inventor, who was a poor man, was diligent in attempting to introduce his invention until the breaking out of the war, when he enlisted in a Massachusetts regiment and was killed at Fredericksburg. Since his death his widow has continued the manufacture, but with small profits. The Commissioner says: "This case is one in which it is eminently proper that an extension should be granted." In the interference case of E. Hewins and D.B. Spooner, applicants for a patent for a water meter, the commissioner affirms the decision of the Board of Appeals, pronouncing Spooner the real inventor. In his decision he is rather severe upon Hewins and the several other members of the Baldwin Patent Meter Company of Boston. One of the party, Mr. Frederick Curtis, comes in for a merited castigation, as follows:
"In the course of the testimony a letter from Mr. Frederick Curtis, of Boston, a solicitor of patents, and one of the parties named above, was put in evidence. I do not see that this letter is relevant to any of the issues of this case, and I have given no weight to it as testimony. I refer to it now, as the publication of this opinion affords me a convenient opportunity of expressing the view which I entertain of its contents.
"The letter was written in February, 1869, to Spooner, in relation to obtaining the second patent upon the Baldwin meter. In this letter Curtis says: 'I have a way now of obtaining the allowance of a patent in six hours after it reaches the Patent Office, by the payment of $75, and I intend to have large fees paid me in excess of this for accomplishing this sort of thing.'
"The first remark which this statement demands is that it is false in fact. No solicitor or any other person has 'a way of obtaining the allowance of a patent in six hours after it reaches the Patent Office.' Cases are received, recorded, and examined in their regular order. They do not reach the examiner until a day or two after they are filed, since they must pass through other rooms, when the fees are received, the cases classified, the applications completed, the files made up, and other formal matters attended to. The examiners, under the great pressure of the numerous applications submitted to them, cannot reach a new case under a week or two after it comes into their rooms, so that, under the most favorable circumstances, the thing asserted in this letter is simply impossible. No order is ever granted, under the present administration of the office, to take cases up out of turn, except as provided in the printed rules, even when inventors have come to Washington to attend to their own applications, and this because it is simply just that those who send their cases to the office, and trust to the operation of its rules, shall not be set aside at the demand of the clamorous few who choose to attend in person or to demand special privileges by friends or attorneys. The rule is imperative, and it has been faithfully and rigidly adhered to.
"But the writer of this letter intimates that this just rule may be set aside by the payment of money. Cases may go through in six hours, he says, 'by the payment of $75,' and the advantage of knowing this secret he deems to be so great, that he intends to have large fees paid to him for accomplishing this sort of thing.
"This insinuation is also false. It is simply a libel on the Patent Office, a libel which has no foundation in fact. Mr. Curtis never had a patent allowed in six hours after the application reached the Patent Office, and he never paid to the Patent Office, or any officer thereof, $75, or any other sum, to secure the allowance of cases out of their regular order.
Inventors ought to know that if they are foolish and wicked enough to pay their money upon such pretenses, it will never reach the pockets of the Government officials for whom they supposed it to be designed. It goes no further than the unscrupulous attorney or agent, who, assuming to trade upon the supposed corruption of sworn officers, is willing to slander honest men and destroy public confidence in the administration of public affairs, in order that he may enrich himself at the expense of his credulous client.
"Instances have come to my knowledge where money has been extorted from clients by agents after patents had actually been allowed but not yet issued, upon the pretense that it was necessary to bribe the examiner. I know of no case where the money went beyond the solicitor. No practitioner can assert with truth that he possesses any facilities by which he is enabled to procure patents in advance of any of his competitors beyond his knowledge of the forms and routine of the office, and his skill and care in the preparation of his cases. To take money from his clients under the pretense that it is to be used to procure such facilities is to add theft to falsehood."
Obituary -- Death of Thomas Ewbank
The Hon. Thomas Ewbank, whose death was briefly announced in our last number, was throughout his long life an enthusiastic student of the natural and the exact sciences, and he acquired distinction in their pursuit. His book on hydraulics has taken a place among standard literature, and his other writings rank with the best scientific and philosophic works which this country has produced. His abilities gained him the appointment of Commissioner of Patents under President Taylor, an office which he filled for several years.
Mr. Ewbank was born at Barnard Castle, Durham, England, in 1792, and at the age of 13 was apprenticed to a tin and copper smith in his native place. When he was 20 years old he went to London and succeeded in getting employment there at making cans for preserved meat. He succeeded in saving enough from his wages to purchase a few books, and to them every hour he could spare from his work was devoted. During the seven years he stayed in London he pursued a comprehensive course of scientific study. He had been elected a member of several learned societies and was on the high road to business prosperity, when in 1819 he gave up his English prospects and came to New York. Here he occupied for a short time the factory at Powle's Hook which had belonged to Robert Fulton. In 1820, he engaged in the manufacture of lead, tin, and copper tubing, which business he carried on until 1836. Since that time he has devoted himself entirely to his private pursuit -- science. His first published work, "A Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulics and other Machines for raising Water, both Ancient and Modern," appeared in 1842. In 1849, he was made Commissioner of Patents, holding that position until 1852. His annual reports to Congress during this time were distinguished for the amount of information and of original suggestion they contained in them.
In 1855, he published "The World a Workshop; or the Physical Relation of Man to the Earth," and in 1857, an interesting volume entitled "Life in Brazil; or the Land of the Cocoa and the Palm," embodying the results of a visit to Brazil, made in 1845. This work contained valuable illustrations of ancient South American arts, and of antique works in stone and metal found in Brazil. In 1859, the "Reminiscences in the Patent Office, and of Things and Scenes in Washington," appeared. Among the best known of Mr. Ewbank's minor works were an essay called, "Thoughts on Matter and Force," published in 1858; an essay read before the American Ethnological Society on "The Inorganic Forces Ordained to Supersede Human Slavery"; an essay on "Experiments in Marine Propulsion." As a member of the commission to examine into the strength of the marbles offered for the extension of the Capitol in Washington he rendered valuable service, and discovered a method of largely increasing the resisting power of all kinds of building stones. Mr. Ewbank's mind retained its activity, and he was a frequent contributor to scientific journals up to the time of his death, though he was nearly 79 years old. The funeral took place on the 19th inst., from Mr. Ewbank's late residence, No. 14 East Thirty-first street. The Rev. Dr. Drown, of Brooklyn, read the services and pronounced a short eulogy. The interment took place in Greenwood Cemetery.
Every really valuable invention is the result of long previous training, expensive experiment, and hard earnest thought. Such being the case, it becomes a matter of prime importance to the inventor that that which has cost so much in the past should be well secured for the future so as to insure to the owner an adequate return for his outlay, his anxiety, and his toil. If experience is worth anything in such matters (and in what department is it not of value?) no better aid can be found than in the office of Messrs. Munn & Co., of this city, the well-known publishers of the Scientific American. It is probable that they have taken out more patents than all the other patent agencies in the United States put together. The consequence is that their office is so extensive that, for the several departments, they can afford to give constant employment to specialists, men who have made a particular study of some one or two things. Hence, in their office an improvement in potato-diggers need not necessarily be confided to a man who has applied himself all his life to steam engines, nor an improvement in woolen carding to one who, though great, is great in fire-arms. A word to the wise is sufficient. -- Technologist
Resignation of Commissioner Fisher
The following letter will explain itself:
United States Patent Office
Washington, D.C., Nov 8, 1870
Sir: -- I ask permission to renew my tender of my resignation of the office of Commissioner of Patents, made October 24, and temporarily withdrawn at your suggestion. If there be no reason to the contrary I suggest that the resignation be accepted to take effect at the close of Thursday, November 10th, inst. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant.
Samuel S. Fisher
To his Excellency, U.S. Grant, President United States
Colonel Fisher has been an able, industrious, and conscientious public servant. The labors and reforms which he has introduced will be felt to advantage in the future administration of the Patent Office.
At the time of our going to press no appointments had been made to fill the vacancy. The names of Samuel A. Duncan, Assistant Commissioner of Patents, William Bakewell, patent lawyer, Pittsburgh, Judge Allison, Registrar of the Treasury, T.C. Theaker, Ex-Commissioner of Patents and patentee, Horace Greeley, President of the American Institute, Clinton Rosevelt, scientist and inventor of the panatechner, J.K. Fisher, steam carriages for common roads, Gideon Welles, Ex-Secretary of the Navy, Jonathan Dennis, Quaker and solicitor, E.P. Weston, the great pedestrian, and other well-known names have been mentioned, and that the interests of female inventors may not escape recognition we suggest the name of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Attempt to Abolish the Patent Office
A correspondent of the Tribune telegraphs from Washington that "a bill will be presented to and pressed on Congress for the abolition of the Patent Office bureau. This office has, it is alleged, become too complicated to be beneficial and must either be abolished or have its jurisdiction materially changed."
A correspondent who has noticed this paragraph inquires "Whether if Congress should abolish the Patent Office it would cancel all unexpired patents."
We answer No. If the Patent Office should be abolished now or hereafter it could not affect patents issued before the act of abolishment went into effect. At present there is no likelihood that any such act can be got through.
Another Patent Agent in Trouble
Commissioner Fisher, just previous to his retirement from the Patent Office, ordered the name of Otto Leissring, a patent agent doing business in Washington, to be stricken from the rolls of attorneys practicing before that Office. The "gross misconduct" of which Leissring is charged is that he fraudulently withheld moneys paid to him as final government fees upon allowed applications.
Leissring, in a letter to the Commissioner of Patents, dated October 27, 1870, acknowledges the error of his ways, and puts in the following somewhat novel defense:
"I herewith enclose affidavits to you of my not being able to appear before the office; and I must willingly acknowledge that I have erred in not paying my fees as I ought to have done.
"The first time I took the fee that I ought to have paid in there was a telegraph from Green Bay, Wisconsin, stating my brother was dying and to come on immediately, and I started, which has been the principal cause of all my present trouble. My brother left over $60,000, and all of which will come to me, and I have had to go there twice, which has cost me considerable; and I have expected to get $10,000, stated in the affidavit, long before this, but, on account of the war in Europe and sickness of my mother there, my papers were delayed, and they have only come to me within the past ten days, and I have sent them on to Wisconsin as stated in my affidavit, and I am expecting them back every day, and as soon as they return I will be in possession of $10,000, deposited in bank in this city for insurance on my brother's life.
"I will give you further information as soon as I am able to appear before you."
Patents -- No Examination
The New York Tribune, in a recent editorial referring to patents and inventions, says our patent laws seem to need an amendment which will assimilate them, in an important respect, to the British. The Patent Office here, as there, should simply register claims to have made inventions or discoveries in their order, without undertaking to pronounce upon their novelty or value; and all questions thence arising should be taken directly to the courts, and there settled. This is the British rule on the subject, and it is much better than ours. Let the inventor make whatever claims he will, and let the courts determine their validity. Our laws give the Commissioner and his examiners entirely too much power -- power which the best functionaries might abuse, through defect of information or error of judgment -- which the worse certainly do and will use most unrighteously. Let them be cut down.