A fire in 1836 wiped off thousands of records that cataloged the inventiveness of the new nation, but fresh finds suggest that the originals may still be around. After starting in the basement, the blaze quickly spread upward and became a full-fledged blaze overnight. The fire was too powerful to be put out using buckets and hoses.
On the morning of December 15, 1836, the sun rose to reveal that the entirety of the nation’s intellectual property records had been reduced to ash. This included approximately 10,000 United States Patents in total, which represented every invention that had been registered with the government since 1790. A horrified crowd had gathered outside Blodget’s Hotel, where the United States Patent Office shared space with the Post Office.
After the fire, the Patent Office, which evolved into what is now known as the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), requested that inventors turn in the original material so that it might be copied. This project was finished for good in 1847, and to this day, only about 2,845 of the lost United States Patents have been properly recreated from the agency’s records.
However, the USPTO has restarted the rescue program, and things are going quite well with it. The most interesting of the new finds are two steamboats that belonged to Robert Fulton, a businessman who lived in the 1800s and whose ownership was proven last summer.
These documents, which date back to 1809 and 1811, are signed original copies of Fulton’s patents that he kept for himself. Fulton started the first financially successful steamboat business in the country in 1807. These were important to protect and grow the business.
The United States Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland is where the two United States Patents can be found today. The patents were brought to the notice of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) by Alex Roland, a retired history professor from Duke University who is writing a biography on James Fulton, and St. John Courtenay III, a patent judge, whom Roland met in the course of his study.
Adam Bisno, who became the agency’s first official historian in 2020 and went on to make the recovery project official and grow it, says that these two finds are “iconic X-patents.”
Many of the records that were wiped out in 1836 are now referred to as “X-patents” since they were issued before the patent numbering system was implemented and were given numbers with an “X” affixed to them. (The Fultons are now known as individuals with the identifiers 995X and 1434X.) Bisno thinks that other X-patents could be hidden in public or private collections in a similar way to how this one was.
People might even want to frame them and hang them in their homes as representations of Americana. Collectors don’t have to worry about giving up something valuable, though, because patent officials only need a high-resolution copy of the original paperwork.
Bisno has high hopes that these two new discoveries involving Fulton will pique the curiosity of the many people who are responsible for maintaining the nation’s paper trails and enlist their assistance. According to him, archivists typically have a good sense of the value of the materials in their care. They have been sitting around hoping that someone will come looking for them.
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