Prologue Magazine

The Struggles of a Soldier-Inventor

Captain William Brooke Johns

Winter 1995, vol. 27, no. 4 | "War in an Age of Wonders"

By Michael P. Musick


The ferment in the practical application of technology in nineteenth-century America is reflected in the many patents awarded during the period.  The U.S. Army was not immune from this enthusiasm.  Among those who were officers at some time in the antebellum period and who obtained patent rights for original ideas were George B. McClellan (the McClellan saddle), Jeb Stuart (a sword-carrying belt attachment), Ambrose E. Burnside (a breech-loading carbine), and Henry H. Sibley (the conical Sibley tent).  Even the Union commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, had in his youth created a device for buoying boats grounded in shallow water.

One representative of the soldier-inventor was William Brooke Johns.* A native of Georgetown, DC, he was recommended by Francis Scott Key for appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and graduated with the class of 1840, which included William T. Sherman. Upon graduation he performed frontier duty in Florida, Missouri, and Louisiana. Johns was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Third U.S. Infantry in 1840 and remained with that regiment to the end of his service, reaching first lieutenant in 1845 and captain in 1847. He served with distinction in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846–1848, earning the brevet rank of captain for gallant and meritorious service in the service in the Battle of Cero Gordo, Mexico. Further service to the republic led Johns to the wilds of Texas and New Mexico, where he again came under fire.

It was not until a tour of duty in New York Harbor in 1856–1859, however, that his inclination to develop mechanical improvements became apparent.  His first patent seems to have been for an improved shotgun cartridge (No. 17,792), issued on July 14, 1857. At about this time he also concluded that he could devise a better and cheaper iron bunk bed than was then available on Governor's Island, and in conjunction with the Architectural Iron Works of New York City he produced a model that won the approval of the quartermaster's establishment. At the suggestion of superiors, he patented this idea (No. 20,435) on June 1, 1858.

Before secession brought the captain to a personal crisis, the Patent Office granted him the rights to two more innovations. In 1859 he was allowed the rights to a knapsack design (No. 23,582; April 29, 1859) and for an apparatus for lighting gas burners (No. 25,122, August 16, 1859).

While an expedition was being fitted out in New York for the relief of beleaguered Fort Pickens, Florida, Captain Johns expressed his views on the sectional dispute to Col. Harvey Brown, who was organizing a relief party. In an agonized letter to the colonel dated April 4, 1861, Johns begged to be spared "the necessity of drawing my Sword against my own countrymen." Colonel Brown concluded that someone capable of writing such a document had no place in his command, and his junior officer was dropped from the army on April 11.

Though not a man without a country, Johns had become a soldier without a profession. Despite this blow, he continued to seek the protection of the United States for his ideas. The watershed year of 1861 saw him issued patents for a convertible cloak and tent, saddle leggings, and a portable fireplace (Nos. 2,524, 2,992, and 2,991).

In the postwar period Johns somehow contrived to support his family as a civilian, acting part of the time as a real estate agent. In 1875, through a recommendation from Ulysses S. Grant, he obtained a job as a clerk in the offices of the surgeon general and later the chief of engineers in Washington, DC. Patent matters continued to interest him, and he was granted protection for his harvester rake (No. 72,644 of 1867), harvester (No. 104,852 of 1870, with William J. Read), paper fastener (No. 176,641 of 1876), and system and apparatus for the improvement of the navigation of rivers (No. 193,516 of 1877). Johns zealously guarded his patent rights and, in correspondence with the authorities, sought to gain compensation for infringement of them.  Several years of ill health culminated in his death on October 18, 1894, at age seventy-seven. Efforts to restore him to the army never bore fruit, despite the support of Secretary of War Stephen B. Elkins.

Sources for such a record of practical creativity are considerable. Gen. Mortimer D. Leggett's Subject-Matter Index of Patents for Inventions Issued by the U.S. Patent Office from 1790 to 1873 (1874) identifies patentees by type of invention, sometimes a difficult thing to discern, but is not indexed by name of inventor. Fortunately, the annual published reports of the patent commissioner are indexed in that fashion, but each year's index must be consulted, since there is no comprehensive index. The numbers provided in these printed sources enable the researcher to locate the original drawings in black-and-white reproduction on National Archives Microfilm Publication T1239, Patent Drawings, 1791–1877 (320 rolls). The original art, sometimes in color or illustrated with photographs, still survives at the National Archives. The published patent drawings and specifications are on microfilm at the Patent Office. Nineteenth-century case files arranged by patent number are located at the National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, Maryland, and document actions by patent attorneys and examiners.

Entry 225 of Record Group 92, Records of the Quartermaster General's Office, the wondrous but maddening Consolidated Correspondence File, contains files about Johns and several of his innovations under "Bunks," "Johns, William B.," "Tents," and "Knapsacks."

Although Johns did not apply for Confederate patents, others did. They are listed in the annual published Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1862–1865), available in various libraries and in Record Group 109 in the National Archives. The Archives has only one Confederate patent. Some others, and two related manuscript volumes, are at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.


* Biographical information about Johns will be found in Gen. George W. Cullum's Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. . . . (1891), vol. II, No. 1055, pp. 55–56; National Archives Microfilm Publication M688, U.S. Military Academy Cadet Application Papers, 1805–1866 (file 1833-75); Washington Star, October 19, 1894; U.S. War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880–1902); Boyd's Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria city directory,1863–1894; and National Archives, RG 107, entry 284, Personal Histories of Civilian Employees of the War Department Stationed in Washington, DC, 1882–1894. Although Johns left the service prior to 1863, there is a significant Appointment, Commission, and Personal Branch (A.C.P.) file for him, created due to the effort to reinstate him, RG 94, entry 297, #2518 A.C.P. 1872.

A Letter That Ended a Career

  Head Quarters
Fort Hamilton
March 4, 1861
  I enclose you herewith a copy of a letter addressed to me by Capt. Wm. B. Johns of the 3d Infantry, which I request may with this be submitted to the General in Chief.
  As I cannot have as a member of my command, an officer avowing the principles contained in this letter, I this day relieved him from the command of his company & ordered him to report to you at Washington
  I am
Very respectfully,
Your Obt. Servant
Harvey Brown
Maj. 2 Ar
Bt. Colonel Cmdg.
Col. L. Thomas,
Adjt. Genl.

(Enclosure to foregoing.)
  Fort Hamilton, N. York
4th April 1861
   Your letter requesting me to put in writing, the remarks made by me, to you, this morning, is received—Knowing you only want willing hearts with you, in the expedition now being organized—which expedition, I & almost every one believe, will come in collision with the people of the SouthI consider it my duty to you, to say, that you are about to require of me, service, that is entirely repugnant to me, & at which my heart revolts—I have always prayed God to spare me the necessity of drawing my Sword against my own countrymen, & I hope this prayer may be heard—I have served this Government twenty years, I believe faithfully, on eleven different occasions I have been under fire, & risked my life for it—age is beginning to make its impressions on me, it is now too late for me to learn a new profession—I have a family, as well as many relatives dependent on me, I can only say I hope the Government will spare me my commission by not forcing on me a service that I have not the heart to perform. You suggested that this expedition was not organized with the view of making War on the South, but if it should be fired upon, by the troops, or people of the South, the fire would be most certainly be returned. I have but little doubt it will be fired on, & at the same time I have no doubt but that the fire will be returned. You see at a glance in what a most trying position this would place me—I could not after the first shot is fired, refuse at that late moment to obey your orders & this is one of my reasons for addressing you as I have done—should I obey you and fire on my countrymen I should be expatriated, for I feel convinced that the policy, now being pursued, will eventually end in forcing all the Slave States to leave the Union: & drawing every Southern man from the Army—Officers from Southern States dread this state of affairs as much as I do. We all love the Union, our profession, & the Flag we have carried victorious over so many fields—but what are we to do, what can you expect us to do, we cannot abandon our relatives & friends & take arms against them. In conclusion permit me to say, I am ready for service on the frontier, in any direction against the savage foes of the country, but spare me,—do not ask me to draw my sword against my own countrymen.
  I am, very respectfully,
Your obt. sert
Wm. B. Johns,
Capt. 3 infy.

Col. Harvey Brown,

A true copy
(Sgd) Harvey Brown
B Col. Comg.

(Endorsement on the foregoing letter of Major Brown)
  By authority of the President, the officer within named will be stricken from the rolls of the army.
April 11, '61 Simon Cameron,
Sec'y of War.

Source: National Archives, RG 94, entry 94, file 2518 A.C.P. 1872. The files of the two contending governments are filled with fascinating documents, which were excluded as a matter of policy by the editors of the Official Records because they were regarded as personnel records.

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