The 1836 U.S. Patent Fire
In the early hours of December 15, 1836, in the basement of the Blodgett Hotel in Washington, where the U.S. Patent Office was temporarily being housed, workers carried the ashes from the stove down to put them in the metal box where they were deposited at the end of every day. The ashes continued to smolder after they closed up shop and eventually ignited, sending the large pile of firewood stored nearby up in flames.
The fire spread quickly, and soon the entire building was engulfed, sending the history of U.S. patents up in smoke. The firehouse next door was no use—no volunteers were present, and its leather fire hose was found cracked and unusable the morning of the fire. A bucket-line was formed, but to no avail. No matter how many hundreds of gallons of water were thrown onto the hotel, the fire raged on. It is perhaps worth noting the cruel irony of the office’s fate: when the British burned most of Washington in 1812, the U.S. Patent office was the only government building left untouched in all of the city.
The fire took with it a fascinating record of American innovation, from a period during which a vast amount of intellectual property for technological inventions was created. Included in this group was the first patent held by a woman, Mary Kies, inventor of a method of weaving silk with straw to make light-weight affordable hats. The first patent by an African American, Thomas Jennings, for a way to dry clean clothing, and the patent for the combustion engine as it is used today were also lost in this fire.
The tragic loss of records resulted in an increased diligence of record keeping. The department began numbering all patents, and a retrospective effort was made to reconstruct the records that had burned. Through this effort they managed to identify the names of 9,000 patents, but only around 200 of the original documents have been obtained.
This particular item is inventor Giuseppe Pinutelli’s copy of the application he sent for a patent for an “improvement in the machine of making paper” in 1819.
“It doesn’t really hit us how important producing paper really was back then,” Freeman’s senior specialist David Bloom explained. “It was extremely expensive since it had to be made out of textile, and the production was limited because it had to be produced on molds that had to be light enough for two workmen to actually hold.
“This limited how much paper could be made at once. One of the motifs in a novel by Balzac, Lost illusions, was all about the struggle over paper making technology. This application represents a move away from using molds to using a machine that would kind of spit out the paper in a continuous roll—that was a real advance towards mass production.”
Freeman’s Books & Manuscripts department head, Ben Truesdale, stressed how different manuscripts are from books, which are complete copies and as such can be compared to other known copies.
“Manuscripts can be much more challenging, each manuscript is a friend, is unique, there isn’t another one. This may not be a perfect piece, but it has so much that is special about it. It’s a little understated but exciting – especially when you consider the contextual backstory.”