Today, the Constitution Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the events at the Patent Office on December 15, 1836.
First, the Constitution in Article I, Section 8 provided for the work of the Patent Office:
“The Congress shall have the power 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.”
However, neither the Constitution nor the work of Congress can resurrect the items after the calamity 179 years ago.
Shortly thereafter, the American & Commercial Daily Advertiser included the following article in their newspaper describing the disaster.
The Fire at Washington.
The National Intelligencer of yesterday furnishes the following particulars relative to the disastrous fire which occurred in that city on Thursday morning. Whether this calamitous event was the result of design or accident appears to be as yet entirely conjectural. The investigation of the Committees appointed in each House of Congress on the subject may possible shed some light on its origin.
It is with no ordinary regret that we perform the duty of announcing the destruction, by Fire, of the building in the central part of this city, which has for many years been occupied by the General Post Office, and the Patent Office, and the City Post Office with an important part of the contents of those buildings, including the entire contents of the two latter.
This calamity, great as it is, has long been feared by those old residents of Washington who knew the combustible nature of the building, (the floors being of wood, and some of them not even counter-sealed,) and the custom of stowing fuel, not only coal but wood, in the vaults underneath the first floor.
The calamity has come at last, and affords the second demonstration, within four years, of the utter absurdity and improvidence of the structures to which the public archives, records and Government accounts have hitherto for the most part confided.
The first alarm of Fire was given by Mr. Crown, a Messenger, who usually sleeps in the room connected with the City Post Office (the Postmaster’s own room.)
The Clerks had been at work, assorting the Mails, until half past two o’clock, when one of the persons belonging to the Office (Mr. Lansdale) passed out of the East door, and along the whole front of the building, without discovering anything to give rise to a suspicion of danger.
Not long after three o’clock, Mr. Crown was roused from a slight slumber by the smell of smoke.
Opening the door of the City Post Office, he perceived a dense smoke, without any visible appearance of fire.
He gave the alarm instantly, first rousing Mr. Cox, one of the Clerks, who slept in a back room adjoining the Post Office, and who, coming out of the door of his room, passed along the whole of the long room with difficulty, through the smoke, the fire crackling, but being able to see nothing.
The watchman in ht body of the building, some distance from the City Post Office, had perceived nothing of the smoke, until they, also, were alarmed by Mr. Crown.
The hour of the night when all this took place being one at which the whole world is buried in the deepest sleep, it was found almost impossible to spread the alarm of Fire.
One of the church bells began to ring, but the ringer, not seeing any flame, ceased ringing almost as soon as he began, and it was a full half hour before the alarm bells were rung, and more than that time before an engine or a bucket of water could be commanded.
As it was, the fire had its own way, and was at last seen in the vault or cellar immediately under the delivery window of the City Post Office; followed shortly afterwards by flames from the windows of the latter, and, within five minutes afterwards, by flames from the roof, the fire having crept up along the staircases or partitions to the top of the building before it broke out below.
From the moment of the flames bursting out from the lower windows, it was obvious that all hope of saving the building was in vain.
In little more than an hour the whole interior of the building and its contents were destroyed.
The books of the General Post Office were all, or nearly all, saved, exertions having been made for their safety from nearly the first moment of the alarm; but a mass of papers, etc. belonging to the office were destroyed.
Not anything was saved from the Patent Office or the City Post Office, the volume of the smoke preventing anybody from penetrating the latter, so as to save anything.
As to the origin of the fire, it is impossible to say anything, for nothing seems to be known of it, except that it was in a cellar or vault, in which pine wood and coal were stowed, all which were probably in a state of ignition before the fire disclosed itself to the eye.
We the more willingly forbear any conjecture as to the cause of the fire, since both Houses of Congress have taken steps, through committees, to investigate it, and in one House with power to send for persons and papers.
Most fortunately, the night was calm and comparatively serene, or the destruction of private property would have been inevitable and great.
Had it occurred on the night previous, when the wind blew almost a hurricane, several squares of valuable buildings must have been destroyed.
The means of the city for extinguishing fires are wholly inadequate to the value of the property at stake, and the sources for the supply of water for the engines are limited in their extent, as well as precarious.
We trust that the lesson we have just received will not be lost on those who have it in their power to apply the remedy.
Of all the amount of loss of paper and property sustained by this disaster, that which is most to be regretted (because irreparable) is that of the whole of the great repository of models and machines in the Patent Office.
The smoldering ashes now only remain of that collected evidence of the penetration, ingenuity, and enterprise which peculiarly distinguish the descendents of Europe and the Western World.
In the book, A Pictorial History of the United States, published in 1866, Samuel Griswold Goodrich included information about the patent office’s contents in 1836.
A remarkable fire took place at Washington, December 15th, 1836, during which the patent-office and post-office were burned.
Among the contents of the patent-office thus destroyed, were seven thousand models of patents, out of ten thousand which had been granted by Congress; one hundred and sixty-three large folio volumes of records; twenty-six large portfolios, containing nine thousand valuable drawings, and ten thousand original descriptions of inventions.
It was a most severe calamity to the country, and calculated to damp, in no small degree, the rising spirit of public improvement.
The misfortune was the more to be regretted, as it was believed to be the work of incendiaries.
It is gratifying to know, however, that, through the activity of Mr. Ellsworth, the superintendent at the time, the loss by the fire was, in a great measure, repaired.
The Constitution Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows beside Blodgett’s Hotel, built in 1793, that served as the Patent Office from 1802 until it burned in 1836.