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Chapter 3

Confederate Patent Office
PREFACE | chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

War Efforts Trigger Confederate Patents

Confederate Patent Office Building

The essential business of the Confederate States of America - winning its independence from the United States of America - was clearly evident in the subject matter of the patents granted by the Confederate Patent Office. To be sure, there appear in the patent listings isolated patents in virtually all technical fields - machines for clarifying cane juice, washing machines, gate fasteners, sewing boxes and the like. However, the overwhelming majority of the patents granted were for weapons and related military hardware. Numerous patents were issued for cannon, cartridges and devices for making cartridges, fuses, breech-loading guns, submarines, torpedoes, camp cots, revolving pistols, swords, sabres and lances.

As the war ground on, the domestic privations resulting from the absence of so many men from home, the Union blockade of Southern ports, and the vast number of maimings resulting from battle is clearly shown by the nature of the patents issuing. Compositions for finishing leather, modes of preserving meat, tanning leather, and lubricating machines all clearly point to local substitutes for products no longer available from abroad. Four patents issued in 1863 alone for wooden-soled shoes, an indication of the scarcity of leather. The grisly practice of amputating injured limbs that was so common in the Civil War is evident from the relatively large number of patents granted for artificial limbs, trusses and similar devices.

Because of the destruction of the Confederate Patent Office at the end of the war (the subject of a future chapter), we know relatively little about the contents of most of these patents. There do appear in various documents, however, tantalizing clues and hints about some of the inventions made in the Confederate States. For example, the T.P. Devereux papers in the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina library reports in April, 1865 of the "latest Confederate Military Marvel", a Southern sharpshooter with a "globe sight " who hit a rider on a horse at 1000 yards-well over half a mile.

The Confederate Patent Office issued one of the first patents on submarines. Such a submarine, named the H.L. Hunley, was built in Mobile, Alabama, early in the war. It was 20 feet long, about five feet in diameter and was propelled by an aft screw driven by eight men seated inside the hull. It carried a "torpedo " on the end of a long pole, the object being to get close enough to ram the torpedo into a ship. The Hunley in fact sank the Union warship Housatonia in Charleston harbor. The resulting explosion also destroyed the submarine and killed the entire crew.

On February 4, 1864, R.S. Sanxay and Adolph Gomert were awarded a patent on a process for duplicating maps by photography. The process was widely used for reproducing military maps for distribution to military commanders.

The Winans steam gun was invented by Charles S. Dickenson and manufactured by Ross Winans, a locomotive manufacturer in Baltimore, Maryland. The gun could allegedly throw 200 balls a minute a distance of two miles. It could also throw a 100-pound cannon ball or bullets. The gun had a single barrel on a pivot and was fed through a hopper. The Winans steam gun was never tested in battle. It was captured by Union troops on May 11, 1861 and was used throughout the war to guard the B & O railway viaduct over the Patuxent River.

The National Archives contains material relating to the design of copper percussion caps by Lt. James C. Calhoun, a Confederate Officer, a welding machine invented by John Blackadder, a master machinist at the Selma, Alabama Naval Gun Foundry and Ordnance Works, and plans for an iron warship for the Confederate Navy begun in a British shipyard, but never completed.

The Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, Virginia contains papers of Matthew F. Maury relating to designs for electric torpedoes, and the University of Virginia Library in Charlottesville, Virginia has drawings, specifications, and correspondence of John B. Read relating to a rifled siege gun.

Much Confederate ingenuity went into trying to break the blockage that eventually strangled the war effort. To this end the Confederate Secret Service was formed by Captain Thomas E. Courtenay, a 41-year-old Irish cotton broker from St. Louis. Capt. Courtenay developed a new kind of mine or bomb, called a torpedo according to the terminology of the day, which was molded of cast iron and painted black to look like a lump of coal. Inside was a fuse and an explosive charge. When properly made they were undetectable except by careful scrutiny. The idea was to plant them in coal bins used by Federal Naval Ships. Eventually, the "lump" would be shoveled into a boiler by an unsuspecting sailor, with predictable results.

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". Courtenay was authorized to raise a corps of 25 men to distribute the bombs. Courtenay himself was captured, and never had an opportunity to place the bombs, but there were a number of mysterious explosions in Federal ships which, after the war, were attributed to the use of the devices. After the fall of Richmond, a Federal Office nosing through Jefferson Davis' "private cabinet" found a sample coal bomb, but it was long ago misplaced or stolen.

Other bomb designs were also made by Confederate engineers, including one disguised in a stick of wood and built into a clock. Another design, including a timer and twelve pounds of gunpowder disguised in a candle box, was carried by two Confederate spies to a Union wharf at City Point, Virginia, and given to a dock hand, who was told that the box contained cigars for the captain of the nearby barge. The box was duly delivered, and the resulting explosion sank the barge and rendered one of the spies, who had loitered nearby to see what happened, permanently deaf.

As with many other Confederate efforts, attempts to destroy Federal ships with bombs, mines, torpedoes and the like suffered from lack of coordination. When successes occurred, they were unrelated to and uncoordinated with other events. Thus, it is difficult to conclude that the efforts recounted above had any real effect on the conduct or the outcome of the war. However, many of the ideas first developed by the Confederates, notably the Confederate's submarine research, did form the basis of further research after the war.

Confederate Patent Office
PREFACE | chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

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