Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 14: Patents

Chapter 14. Records of the Judiciary Committee and Related Committees

Table of Contents

Records of the Judiciary Committee and Related Committees from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Committee Records discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on Patents (1837-1946) Jurisdiction and History

14.5 Congress is granted the power, under the Constitution: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries"; that is, to issue patents and copyrights. In 1790, Congress passed the first patent legislation, which guaranteed certain rights to inventors and granted the authority to issue patents to the executive branch.

14.6 In 1837, the standing Committee on Patents was established in the House, and, under a revision of House rules in 1880, its jurisdiction was expanded to include "patents, copyrights, and trademarks." Before the establishment of the standing committee, most petitions, memorials, executive messages, and legislation relating to patents had been referred to the Judiciary Committee or to select committees on patents.

14.7 The Patent Committee reported legislation concerning patent, copyright, and trademark laws and revision of such laws; the jurisdiction of courts in patent cases; the counterfeiting of trademarks; and the Patent Office and its affairs. Private legislation, usually initiated in response to petition, was an important part of the work of the committee, especially between 1840 and 1890. Private legislative relief was sought by inventors for whom protection was not provided in the existing patent law (such as aliens and government employees) and by patentees who requested extensions on patents because they had not profited sufficiently during the period provided by the original patent.

Records of the Committee on Patents (1837-1946)


Record TypeVolumeCongresses (Dates)
Minute Books 16 vols.41st-47th (1869-82), 50th-56th (1887-1900), 61st (1909-10), 66th-79th (1919-46)
Docket Books22 vols.28th-29th (1843-47), 33d (1853-55), 35th-41st (1857-71), 44th-56th (1875-1901), 61st (1909-11), 66th-79th (1919-46)
Petitions and Memorials10 ft.25th-61st (1837-1911)
Committee Papers19 ft.25th-26th (1837-41), 28th-38th (1843-65), 42d-56th (1871-1901), 58th (1903-05), 60th-61st (1907-11), 66th-79th (1919-46)
Bill Files13 ft.57th-60th (1901-08), 66th-79th (1919-46)
TOTAL:42 ft. and 38 vols.   (3 ft., 2 in.) 

14.8 The minute books and docket books contain information that is especially useful because the records do not contain committee calendars before 1940. The minute books document attendance at meetings, appointment of subcommittees, referral of legislation to subcommittees, markup sessions, and other committee discussions and activities. The docket books generally contain an entry for each bill and resolution referred to the committee, along with a record of activities related to it. During the early years there was usually a minute book and a docket book for each Congress, but after World War I both the minute books and docket books may contain the records for multiple Congresses.

14.9 There are petition and memorial files for every Congress from the creation of the committee until the 61st Congress. After 1911, the petitions and memorials that have been preserved are no longer filed as a separate series, but are usually in the bill file for the bill or resolution to which they relate.

14.10 The petitions and memorials include requests for revision or amendment of various sections of patent laws (28A-G15, 30A-G14, 31A-G13, 33A-G15, 45A-H17, 46A- H18, 48A-H21, 49A-H17, 50A-H21), copyright or trademark legislation (48A-H21, 49A-H17, 50A-H21, 51A-H16, 52A-H17, 54A-H25, 55A-H20, 59A-H19), investigation or reorganization of the Patent Office (30A-G14, 48A-H21), increases in pay for Patent Office employees (25A- G14, 37A-G10), and various other subjects.

14.11 Many of the petitions request extensions of patents and sometimes contain extensive documentation supporting the claims on which the requests were based. Examples of claims petitions include renewal appeals for Jethro Wood's cast-iron plow (30A- G14.2, 7 in.), Woodworth's planing machine (31A-G13.4, 32A-G14.4, 8 in.), McCormick's reaper (32A-G14.2, 33A-G15.3, 34A-G13.3, 36A-D16.1), Goodyear's patent on the vulcanization process for rubber (38A-G14.1), Page's patent on a portable sawmill (38A-G14.2), and Sherwood's patent on door locks (38A-G14.3). Other examples include provisions for the payment of royalties to inventors by other manufacturers (43A-H12.2, 20 in.), the extension of the patent on a steam-driven grain shovel (47A-H16.1, 2 in.), and extension of a patent on a method of forming hat bodies (43A-H12.1, 5 in.).

14.12 The petition files also document opposition to the renewal of certain patents. The records from the 31st Congress (1849-51), for instance, contain petitions against renewal of the patents on McCormick's reaping machine, Parker's improvements on the waterwheel, Jethro Wood's cast-iron plow, Woodworth's planing machine, Blanchard's self- directing machine, and Goodyear's process for manufacturing India Rubber, as well as Goodyear's protest against Horace Day's claims to the patent for the manufacture of India Rubber, and Elizabeth Wells' claim for remuneration for her late husband`s invention of "exhilarating gases" (ether) for use in surgical operations (31A-G13).

14.13 Committee papers are sparse for the years before 1932 and consist largely of manuscript copies of reports that were later printed and collections of printed bills referred to the committee. There are, however, sizable files containing documentation on certain patent cases, such as documents supporting petitions for extensions of patents on Torrey and Tilton's door spring (43A-F20.1, 6 in.), Eliza Well's improvement in machinery for forming hat bodies (43A-F20.2, 6 in.), Wickersham's improvement in sewing machines (43A-F20.3, 3 in.), Cook's sugar evaporator (46A-F25.1, 3 in.), and Twinning's method for the manufacture of ice (47A-F19.1, 2 in.). Other records include hearings on the Hyatt filter (56A-F28) and a privately printed hearing on a copyright bill (54A-F31).

14.14 The committee papers after the 71st Congress (1929-31) consist primarily of correspondence files, usually arranged according to particular legislative subjects. The records from 1935-36 (74A-F28) contain correspondence on copyright legislation (18 in.), patent pooling (30 in.), copyright legislation hearings (12 in.), and the creation of a Federal department of science, art, and literature (6 in.). The 1931-33 files (72A-F23) contain correspondence on copyrights (6 in.) and patents (8 in.).

14.15 The bill files usually contain copies of the various forms of the printed bills, printed hearings, reports, and, when appropriate, the printed public laws. They may also contain correspondence with Government agencies and other interested parties, transcripts of unpublished testimony given at hearings, and other documents related to a bill. After about the 61st Congress (1909-11), petitions and memorials are sometimes filed in the bill files.

14.16 Bill files for the 57th through 70th Congresses (1901-29) are thin, but beginning with the 71st Congress (1929-30) they are more complete and contain files on most or all bills and resolutions referred to the committee. The bill files for the 77th, 78th, and 79th Congresses appear to contain folders on each piece of legislation referred to the committee during each Congress. The bill files for the 79th Congress (1945-46) were maintained so thoroughly that they contain a file on S. 1717, a bill to provide for the development and control of atomic energy, even though the bill was referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and not the Patents Committee. The file on S. 1717 contains letters mostly from patent lawyers who were concerned that sections 7 and 11 of the bill would have an effect on existing patent laws (79A-D27).

14.17 The bill files document the broad range of legislative subjects dealt with by the committee and changes in the emphasis of the legislative workload over time. The bill files indicate that during the 66th Congress (1919-21) various efforts were made to improve conditions in the Patent Office; the files contain correspondence (6 in.) relating to a number of bills proposing the establishment of an independent patent office and an independent court of patent appeals, and an increase in the workforce and salaries in the Patent Office (66A-D22). The records from 1929-31 contain files on H.R. 720, a bill to provide for the purchase by the United States of certain aeronautical and aviation designs and inventions from Edwin F. and Leslie F. Naulty of New York; H.R. 11372, a bill to provide for the patenting of agricultural plants; H.R. 2828, a bill to amend general trademark legislation; H.R. 6990, a bill to generally revise the copyright law; H.R. 2267, a bill to extend a patent to Thomas McKee for an improvement in the design of adjustable chairs; H.R. 13157, a bill relating to suits of infringement of patent where the patentee was in violation of the antitrust laws; and other bills (71A-D23).

14.18 The records of the late 1930's and early 1940's reflect a growing concern with protecting the national interest. The records of the 77th Congress contain bill files on H.R. 3359, a bill to prohibit, in the national interest, the publication of certain patents; H.R. 3360, a bill to prohibit the enforcement of injunctions on patents when necessary for the national defense; H.R. 7620, a bill to adjust royalties for the use of inventions for the benefit of the United States; and, H.J. Res. 32, a resolution defining a principle of international reciprocity involving patents, trademarks, secret formulas, and so forth. The files contain correspondence, hearing transcripts, copies of bills and resolutions, and reports and other documents related to the legislation. The file on H.J. Res. 32, for instance, contains correspondence and other related material, including a copy of a CLICK magazine article on the subject of Nazi patents and the royalties paid to Germans by Americans. The author of the CLICK article was called upon by the chairman of the Patents Committee to testify at a hearing on H.J. Res. 32.

14.19 Both before and after the creation of the standing Committee on Patents, certain petitions and memorials relating to patents were referred to select committees created to consider a particular document. There are, for example, records from the Select Committees on:

  • Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin Patent, 1811-13 (12A-F11.2)
  • Patents & Patent Laws, 1831-33 (22A-G25.5)
  • Petition on Patent Laws, 1833-35 (23A-G21.2)
  • Petition of Inventor of Steam Engine Device, 1833-35 (23A-G21.3)
  • Modification of Patent Laws, 1835-37 (24A-G22.3)
  • Claim of A.C. Goell for A Rocket Machine, 1845-47 (29A-G23.1)
  • Patenting Medicines, 1847-49 (30A-D26.4)
  • Colt's Patent and Other Bills, 1853-55 (33A-D21.4)

Table of Contents

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.