Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 13 Patents

Table of Contents

Chapter 13. Records of the Committee on the Judiciary and Related Committees, 1816-1968

Records of the Committee on the Judiciary and Related Committees, 1816-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on Patents and the Patent Office, 1837-69 and the Committee on Patents, 1869-1946

13.54 The Committee on Patents and the Patent Office was established September 7, 1837, when the Senate approved a resolution of Henry Hubbard of Kentucky. Until this time, legislation and other matters relating to patents and the Patent Office were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. However, as Felix Grundy of Tennessee explained in support of the resolution on the floor of the Senate, the Judiciary Committee "being almost always engaged with subjects of its own of importance, had frequently found it impossible to pay that attention to others which they deserved...." John Ruggles of Maine was shortly thereafter appointed chairman of the committee. In 1869, the name of the committee was shortened to simply the Committee on Patents, which it remained until the committee was eliminated by the provisions of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Beginning January 2, 1947, jurisdiction over patents, the Patent Office, and patent law reverted to the Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks.

13.55 The records (26 ft.) include committee reports and papers, 1837-47 (1 in.); committee papers, 1851-1946 (14 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures and other bodies referred to the committee, 1837-1946 (12 ft.); legislative dockets, 1925-46 (2 vols., 3 in.); and minutes of committee meetings, March 15, 1924-June 10, 1946 (1 vol., 1 in.). Missing from the records are committee reports and papers for the 28th Congress (1845-47) and for many later Congresses there are either no committee papers or no petitions and memorials.

Records 1837-1901 (25th-56th Congresses)

13.56 Records of the Committee on Patents during this period (16 ft.) document some of the actions taken by certain U.S. and a small number of foreign inventors and inventor-entrepreneurs to protect and exploit their patents, as well as by those who opposed these efforts. Congress did not become involved normally in decisions to grant patents; such determinations were made initially by patent examiners and approved by the Commissioner of Patents. Frequently, however, inventors sought to extend their patent protection for an additional number of years. Extensions of patents were also granted by the Commissioner when good cause could be shown; for example, if the patent holder or his heirs or legal representative could document reasons why the invention was not exploited commercially during the original grant. Congress became involved in the process when a patent holder, after being denied an extension, appealed to Congress to pass a private law granting the extension. Most of the records in all three principal series document cases involving extensions, or less commonly, the reissue of patents. If the remedy sought in the original petition was introduced as a bill, the bill would be referred to the committee, where it might be reported favorably or adversely; if favorably reported, it might eventually be passed and enacted, but, like any act, it might still be vetoed by the President. For example, the records of S. 691, 44th Cong., for the relief of Edward A. Leland, include the enrolled bill and the veto message of President U. S. Grant, issued just before Grant left office (44A-E11). Some inventors sought passage of a private bill on their own behalf repeatedly, and most were unsuccessful in surmounting numerous bureaucratic and legislative hurdles. The Senators were probably well aware of the poor success rate of such attempts and may have themselves been frustrated by the process. A report of April 12, 1858 (S. Rpt. 171, 35th Cong., 1st sess., Serial 939), relating to a bill for the relief of Bancroft Woodcock, noted that four favorable reports had been issued but no bill had passed in the past 12 years; by then Woodcock's plough improvements were in general use. The committee also commented that the case presented a strong illustration of the impropriety and uselessness of applications to Congress for the extension of patents (36A-H11).

13.57 Notwithstanding the difficulties encountered by inventors in pursuing private laws, the records contain information on a number of significant 19th century inventors who sought extensions or whose approved extensions were opposed by competing inventors and businessmen and others with a vested interest in terminating royalty payments for use of patented inventions. Among the most significant of the inventors are Aza Arnold (33A-E9), Thomas Blanchard (29A-D10, 29A-G13, 37A-H11), James Bogardus (29A-D10, 29A-G13), Samuel Colt (33A-E9, 33A-H14, 35A-H11, 36A-11), William Crompton (35A-E8), James A. Cutting (41A-E13), Charles Goodyear (31A-H13, 38A-H13), Nathaniel Hayward (33A-H14, 35A-E8, 34A-H14), Obed Hussey (33A-H14, 34A-H14), John L. Mason (46A-H15.1), Cyrus McCormick (31A-H13, 32A-E9, 32A-H14.3, 33A-H14, 34A-H14), Stephen McCormick (26A-G12), Samuel F. B. Morse (36A-H11), Hiram Pitts (35A-H11), Capt. Henry M. Shreve (27A-G12), Frederick E. Sickels (37A-H11), Edwin A. Stevens (34A-H14), Allen B. Wilson (42A-H17.1, 43A-H15, 44A-H14), Ross Winans (29A-D10, 29A-G13), and O.F. Winchester (40A-H16). After the 49th Congress (1885-87), there are few records relating to patent extension.

13.58 Beginning in the 1880's, the records of the committee, particularly the petitions and memorials, are less numerous, and they concern general patent and copyright legislation and international agreements, rather than individual cases. For most prior Congresses, there are occasional memorials favoring such matters, but in the early 1880's, there are several bills, petitions, and memorials, and related records on matters of general revisions of patent, trademark, and copyright laws, such as patent infringement. For example, the records include an original transcript of a hearing, March 17, 1884, on S. 1115, H.R. 3925, and H.R. 3934, 48th Cong., concerning the process of recovery for patent infringement (48A-E15). Other bills, such as S. 2939, 55th Cong., concern specific industries; in this instance, U.S. music publishers sought protection from "piracy" by Canadian music publishers of their copyrights on popular sheet music of the late 1890's, such as "Sweet Rosie O'Grady." The file on S. 2939 contains numerous examples of these U.S. and Canadian publications (55A-F20).

Records 1901-46 (57th-79th Congresses)

13.59 The records of the Committee on Patents for this period (10 ft.) are markedly different from those of the 19th century. Case files on bills and resolutions referred to the committee are found in the series papers supporting specific bills and resolutions. From 1901 until 1923, there are few significant records. For the few Congresses for which there are any committee papers, there are mainly copies of annual reports of the Commissioner of Patents and other executive communications and reports that are printed. The petitions concern a limited number of subjects, including various bills to amend copyright laws regarding trademarks (58A-J56) and patent laws regarding drugs (58A-J57, 59A-J80). Other petitions illustrate the conflicting positions of typographers, on one hand, and librarians and academics on the other, with respect to the importation of foreign publications (59A-J79).

13.60 Beginning with the records of the 68th Congress (1923-25), more records have been retained. There are small correspondence files for the chairman during each Congress, except for the 74th and 75th Congresses (1935-39), until the elimination of the committee. The chairmen for whom there are records include Richard P. Ernst of Kentucky, 1923-27 (68A-F16, 69A-F19); Jesse H. Metcalf of Rhode Island, 1927-29 (70A-F16); Charles W. Waterman of Colorado, 1929-31 (71A-F20); Felix Hebert of Rhode Island, 1931-33 (72A-F20); Robert F. Wagner of New York, 1933-35 (73A-F19); Homer T. Bone of Washington, 1936-44 (76A-F17, 77A-F22, 78A-F22); and Claude E. Pepper of Florida, 1945-46 (79A-F21). Of these, the most extensive (2 ft.) is the correspondence of Senator Bone, which includes memorandums of committee counsel Creekmore Fath and concerns the subject of patents and the war effort.

13.61 The minutes, 1924-46, summarize committee meetings from the 2d session of the 68th Congress through the 79th Congress, and the legislative dockets, 1925-46, denote actions taken by the committee on each bill and resolution referred to it from the 69th Congress through the 79th Congress.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.