The Confederate Patent Office Begins Work
By May 22, 1861, when the Confederate Congress approved the formation of the Confederate Patent Office, plans for war were well under way. Following the capture of Fort Sumter by the Confederates in April 1861, armies were quickly formed. The Union had every expectation that it would quickly and with little bloodshed quell the rebellious South and restore the Union. Events were to prove this expectation quite wrong. In July 1861 the North moved an army south from Washington into northern Virginia, the goal being to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, before the Confederate Congress convened there on July 20th. The Union and Confederate armies met 25 miles south of Washington near the small community of Manassas. It was a rout. The Union army was beaten back towards Washington in panic, driving before them spectators, including many Congressmen, Generals and their ladies, who had ridden out from Washington to watch the festivities over a picnic lunch. As a result of this and similar early defeats, the North suffered from an inferiority complex depression from which it fully recovered only at the end of the war four years later. The Southerners on the other hand were jubilant, and assumed that they had gone a long way towards securing their independence from the North.
This was the mood of the South during Rufus Rhodes' first year as Commissioner of the Confederate Patent Office. He had the difficult task of beginning to perform his required bureaucratic duties as Commissioner of the Confederate Patent Office, while at the same time locating office space, furnishing the Office, and hiring employees. The optimism created by the South's battlefield successes caused a relatively large number of patent applications to be filed, so Mr. Rhodes had to contend with the actual work of the Office even as it was being set up.
After a search through Richmond, the Patent Office found space on the third story of the Mechanics' Institute, directly over the Navy Department. Its offices included a large exhibition gallery containing glass display cases for displaying the patentee's models, which were in those days ordinarily required as a condition of obtaining a patent. The activities of the Confederate Patent Office were few in comparison with those of the United States Patent Office. In 1861 the Confederate Office issued 57 patents, while the United States Patent Office issued over three thousand. Nevertheless, the entire range of human activities was represented. At the end of 1861 the display cases in the Confederate Patent Office contained agricultural implements ranging from hoes to a steam plow, textile machines, maritime and civil engineering implements, and numerous implements of war, including a machine gun. The preponderance of firearms and implements of war were not surprising given that the Confederate States were born into war. The Commissioner remarked on this fact in his 1861 Annual Report, the first of four he was to issue:
Of the patents which have been allowed...one third...cover improvements in fire arms, or other destructive implements of war, a fact which strikingly illustrates the disposition of inventors, considered as a distinct class of citizens, to contribute each his offering in furtherance and support of the great cause of civil liberty, whose defence and vindication Providence has assigned to the people of the Confederate States.
The activities of the Confederate Patent Office were severely hampered by the shortage of scientific books and the absence of an archive of previously-issued patents to use as a prior art reference base in examining new patent applications. The 1861 Annual Report indicates that the Patent Office spent only $94.00 on reference books for the library. Mr. Rhodes commented on this fact, and the philosophy of examination which the shortage of these materials necessitated, in his 1861 Annual Report:
There is not a polytechnic journal for sale at Richmond, and the supply of other books of the kind required by the office is exceedingly limited. I have only been able to procure a few cyclopedias of art and science... Mindful of the maxim "that it is better to err on the safe side", I have, from the day the office was organized, acted upon the principle of giving the benefit of all doubt to the applicant. In all cases, therefore, in which the office could not point to the evidence of a want of novelty in the subject on which an application was based, however strong the doubt entertained whether the subject was really new, the rule has been to let a patent go out.
However necessary this practice (which today, as then, would gladden the heart of every patent owner and send chills through every alleged infringer) the Patent Office still granted only 57 patents out of 304 applications received in 1861. This percentage of patents issued on applications filed is considerably below current percentages in the United States and other large Patent Offices.
The refusal of the Patent Office to grant patents occasionally caused unhappy inventors to seek redress through the Confederate Congress. One such occurrence is recounted in the Reports of the Second Session of the First Congress, where Mr. Clark, a Congressman from Mississippi, presented the "memorial" of Esham Walker, asking for a thirty-year patent for his "aerial caloric ship", and that he be appointed "aerial reconnoitering agent." The editor of the Congressional Reports noted dryly that the request for the patent was accompanied by a drawing of the inventors' novel "ship", which looked "very much like a pair of twin whales, navigating the upper regions." Since Mr. Walker's name does not appear on any of the lists of inventors to whom patents were granted, he was apparently unsuccessful.
The Patent Office played an indirect role in the famous battle between the Monitor and the Virginia (nee Merrimac). Civil War students will recall that the naval battle between the Monitor and the Virginia inaugurated the era of armored warships. In April, 1861, the Confederate Navy raised the scuttled United States warship Merrimac, refitted her with armor plate as an "ironclad", renamed her "Virginia", and steamed her forth to break the blockade of Hampton Roads, Virginia, by the Union Navy. She met with great success, sinking several conventional Union naval vessels. Fortunately for the Union, the Union's own ironclad "Monitor" arrived just in time to do battle with the Virginia, and dueled her to a draw, thereby keeping the blockade in place.
The design and engineering of the Virginia resulted in a dispute over patent rights to the design. John M. Brooke, then an employee of the Department of the Navy, contested rights to the design with a ship's carpenter named J.W.H. Porter. Brooke sought and obtained a patent in his own name and ownership, notwithstanding his status as an employee of the Confederate Navy.
Those readers familiar with principles of patent claim drafting may find interesting the claim in his patent for "a new and useful improvement in ships of war":
What I claim as my invention, and desire to secure by letters patent, consists in so constructing the hull of a vessel that her bow and stern shall each extend under water beyond the forward and after ends of the shield which protects the crew and guns, sufficiently to give the sharpness necessary to the attainment of high speed and buoyancy to support the weight of iron applied without an inconvenient increase of draft.
The concluding paragraph of Rhodes' first Annual Report clearly reflects the mood of extreme optimism that was then felt throughout the South as the result of its armies' successes:
The collection of [patent] models is yet small, and covers but little space, but there are still enough, I may be permitted to say, to show that the Southern people possess inventive genius in an abundant measure, and that is needed but an occasion like that which is upon us, to give to it an active vitality and expression, which, beneficial in a large degree to the living present, cannot fail to be fruitful of magnificent results to coming generations.
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