The Confederate States Patent Office


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

The Confederate Patent Office
Official Seal
(Public Domain)

“To promote the progress of science and useful arts,
by securing for limited time to authors and inventors
the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
The Confederate Constitution
March 4, 1861
(Article One, Section 8, and Clause 8)​

With these words the Confederate Congress began the search for the right person who could come in an set-up and efficiently run “The Confederate Patent Office”.

Rufus Randolph Rhodes (1818-1870) was born in Alabama and had been an attorney practicing in Mississippi. In June of 1857 he moved his family to accept a job in the United States Patent Office and eventually gained a position as one of the three men seated on the “Board of Appeals”, a position he once described as “a post, whose duties are semi-judicial and semi-scientific and alike pleasant, responsible and honorable in their range and nature {2}More importantly Rhodes was a friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis

A week after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, Rufus Rhodes sent off a letter to Mississippi Governor John J Pettus:

"I cannot with my views hold office under a Republican President a single instance of time without a total sacrifice of my self-respect. To do it would involve not only a loss of my own self-respect, but brand me as a disgraced and dishonored man in the estimation of all for whose good opinion I am anxious, namely the Southern people. I regard the election of Lincoln as a verdict against the equality of the southern states on the part of the sectional majority of the north.”

"Not doubting that all Mississippians entertain the views I have thus hastily expressed I must believe that Mississippi will secede from the union. My object therefore in writing this is to tender through you her honored chief magistrate my humble services in that event in any sphere in which they can be of use.”

The forty-two years is leaving Washington. It is not known exactly when Rhodes left his Northern job but there is little doubt that with his experience he was the likely choice to fill the slot the Confederate government was looking to fill. On May 22, 1861 Rufus Rhodes was appointed the first Commissioner of the Confederate States Patent Office based in Richmond Virginia. He would serve for the duration of the war.

The first step was to determine where to place the Office of Patents. Rhodes found space in the building that housed the Confederate War and Navy Departments. He eventually took over the entire third floor of the building. Using his experience from the United States Patent Office in Washington he styled his Richmond facility with glass door cabinets to allow public viewing and inspection of the drawings and models of the inventions.

In August of 1861 the “Rules of Practice and Procedure” were established and implemented for the Confederate Patent Office. Although they were crafted mostly from the rules of the United States Patent Office from where he worked there were several differences.

“Aliens were permitted to apply for and hold Confederate Patents, provided the alien's government had recognized the Confederate States and was "in amity" with them. . . . If the inventor was a slave, the master made the oath in his place and obtained the patent, if granted.” {2}

Yankees and slaves need not apply. In addition if a Confederate citizen had applied for and received a patent with the United States Patent Office prior to May 21, 1861 the patent could be revived with the Confederate States Patent Office. As a result of this order the Patent Office recorded 112 United States Patents issued to Confederate citizens.

It proved to be a busy office. From its inception until the end of 1861 it processed 304 patent applications. The first patent was issued on Augusts 1, 1861 to J.H. Van Houten of Savannah, Georgia. He designed a breech loading gun and the patent appropriately carried the number “1”.

Over one-third of the patents were related to the war effort. These included patents for guns, sabres, cartridges, cannons, percussion fuse, a combined camp chest/bed, camp cots just to name a few (the entire list may be found in source #4). A woman was issued a patent on December 6, 1861 when Louise Grady of Norfolk, Virginia was awarded Patent #53 for a washing machine. Following the number of patents awarded for the war effort the next highest number of patents were issued for their major industry; agriculture.

A most consequential patent was issued on July 29, 1862 when Richmond resident John M. Brooke was granted Patent #100 for what was called “Ship for War”. His patent was the design of the ironclad USS Merrimack or as it is known as the CSS Virginia. Two interesting patents in 1864 were issued to C. Williams of St. Louis, Missouri #258 and #261 both related to “sub-marine boats”. Mr. Williams is not listed as a developer of sub-marines other than in his patents. The speculation is the Confederate government did not want patents for some of their war-related technology for upon awarding a patent the designs would be made public and perhaps fallen into Union hands. {6} C.W. Williams is credited with #255 and #256 also in granted in 1864 with the simple title: torpedo.

During the war the Confederate States Patent Office employed Commissioner Rufus Rhodes as well as Chief Clerk William Lester, two Assistant Examiners, Americus Featherman and Thomas R. Duval, a Recording Clerk Howard Young, and a Temporary Recording Clerk and Messenger, C. H. Ely and E.A. Baughman respectively. It was said that as the Union army slowly squeezed the Confederacy Rhodes never had to let anyone go; they respectively resigned.

Their office issued 266 patents although the exact number is unknown. Unfortunately on that night in April of 1865 as Richmond was burning the Patent Office went up in smoke. Whatever documents were taken were combined among the papers from the War Department. Some years later an unknown private party delivered to the Museum of the Confederacy two partially completed ledger books. These joined :

“a few original patents as delivered to patentees, plus the four Annual Reports of the Confederate Commissioner of Patents and a scattering of other printed reports, statutes, etc., constitute the entire known surviving records of the Confederate Patent Office.” {7}

In a book published in 2011 “Confederate Invention: The Story of the Confederate States Patent Office and Its Inventors”, by J. Jackson Knight, he meticulously researches the history, people and patents during those four years. He believes after his review there were 274 patents.

The Commissioner of the United States Patent Office, David Holloway, sent Governor Leonard J. Farwell to Richmond in June of 1865 to recover any records in the Confederate Patent Office . . . he found nothing.

From 1861-1864 the Confederate States Patent Office had issued perhaps as many as 274 patents. The same four years resulted with the United States Patent Office issuing 16,051 patents.

Rufus R. Rhodes served in his position until the fall of Richmond. Every indication proved him to be a diligent and excellent Commissioner during his tenure. His work in 1865 was difficult as the war was marching its way to Richmond. Shortages of ink and paper made his documentation difficult and thereby his job nearly impossible. After the war he returned to Mississippi and resumed his law practice with a specialty in patent law until his death in 1870 at fifty-two years of age.​

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