The December 15 1836 U.S. Patent Office fire was the first of several disastrous fires the U.S. Patent Office has had in its history. An initial investigation considered the possibility of arson due to suspected corruption in the Post Office, which shared the same building, but it was later ruled out. The cause was ultimately determined to be accidental. This event is considered to be a turning point in the history of the Patent Office.
Local fire suppression efforts were incapable of preventing the damage due to lack of fire personnel and old equipment. Many patent documents and models from the preceding three decades were irretrievably lost. As a result of the fire, Congress and the newly legally revamped Patent Office changed the way it handled its recordkeeping, assigning numbers to patents and requiring multiple copies of supporting documentation.
The fire broke out at 3 a.m. on December 15. At that time the Patent Office was located in Blodget's Hotel, as was the fire department and the post office. Patent Office employees stored firewood in the basement of the hotel, near where postal employees disposed of the hot ashes from their fires. Sometime after midnight that morning the hot ashes ignited the firewood. The fire department's hose was old and defective and would not funnel the water onto the fire. All 10,000 patents and several thousand related patent models were destroyed.
In 1810, Congress had authorized the purchase of the unfinished Blodgett's Hotel from its builder to house the Post and Patent offices. Congress was aware of the fire risk. During the War of 1812, Superintendent Dr. William Thornton convinced members of the British expeditionary force to leave it standing while they burned the rest of the city. "When the smoke cleared from the dreadful attack, the Patent Office was the only Government building . . . left untouched" from the Burning of Washington.
Consequently, a well-equipped fire station was located nearby. In 1820, "Congress authorized the covering of the building with a slate roof and the purchase of a fire engine for its protection against fires." Unfortunately, the volunteer fire department lost its sense of purpose and was disbanded. In fact, a complete firehouse equipped with a fire engine was just down the street. Although equipped with a forcing pump and with riveted leather hose 1,000 feet (300 m) long (all purchased 16 years earlier by Act of Congress), there were no firefighters. Running a bucket brigade to put out the building blaze was totally ineffective.
The lost items included 168 folio volumes of records, 26 large portfolios of some nine thousand drawings, related descriptive patent documents, and miscellaneous paperwork. The 7,000 lost models included those of various textile manufacturing processes and several models of steam-powered machinery for propelling boats (including Robert Fulton's original bound folio of full-color patent drawings, done in his own hand). The Patent Office's own model-cases, press and seals, desks, book-cases and office furniture were also destroyed. The entirety of the library was lost, excepting only "one book, volume VI of the Repertory of Arts and Manufactures (now in the Scientific Library of the Office), which an employee of the office happened to have taken to his home," against the office's rules. John Ruggles, chairman of the Senate investigating committee, wrote that the lost materials "not only embraced the whole history of American invention for half a century, but were the monuments of property of vast amount, (including) 'the largest and most interesting collection of models in the world.'"
Congress investigated the fire immediately, suspecting arson. At the time of the fire the Post Office Department was under investigation for awarding dishonest mail contracts. It was first thought that perhaps the fire was set to destroy evidence. However, it turned out that the Post Office Department had saved all their documents. Investigators concluded that someone had stored hot ashes in a box in the basement. The live embers then ignited the firewood; no one was ever identified as having caused the fire. The Patent Office was moved to the old City Hall, at the time the District Courthouse.
All patents from prior to the fire are listed today as X-Patents by the office. There are estimated to be 9,957, of which only 2,845 have been restored. Congress solicited for the restoration of the lost patents and appropriated monies for this purpose. It is difficult for modern researchers to find those patents.
The fire occurred around the time of the Patent Act of 1836, which had required that patent applications be examined before being granted. An amendment to it the following year required submission of two copies of drawings—one for safekeeping in the patent office; the other attached to the patent grant transmitted to the applicant. The requirement ended in 1870 when the Office began printing complete copies of patents as issued.
In the aftermath of the fire, the way patents were identified was changed. As the National Archives notes: "Patent records predating 1836 were unnumbered and could be accessed only by name of patentee and date of patent. After 1836, unique numbers assigned by the Patent Office distinguished each new patent."
On July 4, 1836, the Patent Office became a separate organization within the Department of State under the Patent Act of 1836 (5 Stat. 117). Henry Leavitt Ellsworth became its first Commissioner. He immediately began construction of a new "fire-proof" building, which was not completed until 1864.
The March 3, 1837, Act made provisions to restore the models and drawings lost in the 1836 fire. An amount of $100,000 was appropriated as a budget. There were some 10,000 patent records lost and some 7,000 invention models. One method of restoration was by getting back a duplicate from the original inventor. By 1849 the restoration process was discontinued and it was determined that $88,237.32 had been spent from the budget allowed.
A fire in 1877 destroyed the west and north wing of the new building and caused even more damage.