Long Lost, though in part, Not Forgotten

Another brief diversion from our running series, in part to allow research time to dig deeper on the local front, though also to mark two little remembered anniversaries.

The fifteenth of this month marked the full One Hundred and Seventy Fifth year since the the loss of the Patent Office to a fire, this caused by the still all too common story of careless disposal of ashes. The fire consumed the building the Office was then housed in, The Blodgett Hotel.

A sketch of the burning Blodgett Hotel, Wm. Steiger Draftsman General Land Office - Courtesty myoutbox.net

This loss was particularly ironic because the Patent Office was intentionally spared twenty two years prior when the British burned Washington, a largely singular exception in their razing of the city.

With the building, also lost were something approaching 10,000 patents, and the models required to be filed with the written descriptions, the “letters patent.” Of those many filings lost to the fire, 2,845 have since been recovered. This attempt at recreation of the record began the inception of a then new numbering system, recovered patents being issued a number with the prefix of X. Prior to the 1836 loss, patents were recorded simply by name and date. Such recoveries are still occasionally happening into the present day. Within the last decade fourteen original patent office documents, former papers of New Hampshire steam engine inventor Samuel Morey were discovered in Dartmouth’s Special Collections Library by researching Nashua NH attorneys specializing in patent law. Copies of these papers were reintroduced into the Patent Office record.

Discoveries such as these perhaps still lie unrealized in similar long unexplored archives, or in unopened trunks and dusty attics. But much was forever lost.

This is as true for bridge patents as it it is for any of the other many types then on file.

This might be no better exemplified, than in the person of Theodore Burr, perhaps the most recognized name in the history of wooden bridge building, and said to be the holder of the first issued bridge patent X662, filed in 1806. And like X883 (the first patent filed for a suspension bridge) issued to Pennsylvanian James Finley just two years later, all details, drawings and descriptions of what was actually patented are seemingly, forever lost to time.

Often it seems that it is assumed that X662 was an earlier incarnation of X2769, Burr’s familiar Truss which he patented in 1817. I should think that this is more than highly improbable, and that there is no coincidence that the patent was issued within a month of Burr’s five span ahead of its time masterwork over the Delaware at Trenton being completed and opened to traffic.

This bridge consisted of multiple lamination Tied Arches from which the floor systems were chain suspended. I see it as no stretch whatever to suggest that the intent of the 1806 patent was to protect proprietary design elements used in the Trenton Bridge. The design was a long lived and well tested structural success. One of its two lanes was years after being opened to its intended service, in 1835, converted to Railroad use, and the bridge continued to carry traffic for another forty one years, through the completed construction of its iron replacement, which was built beside it and then rolled into place upon its disassembly and removal.

Though the cause and circumstance, and even the day and year of his death, and the very location of his burial are all somehow shrouded in mystery, some say Mr. Burr left us 189 years ago this very evening, 21 December 1822, while working on a another of his many long and multiple spans to bridge the Susquehanna, this one to have been in Middletown Pennsylvania.


About Will Truax

I'm a timberframer and preservation carpenter, and regularly work on Covered Bridge restoration projects. Bridgewrighting can be a tough row to hoe, for a myriad of reasons. From scheduling issues to differing opinions and philosophies on what is appropriate in methods and materials, to multiple jurisdictions still not sufficiently vetting bidders resumes - Which is to say, just because a company is on that state approved list and capable of building that seven figure overpass, this does not mean they are capable of restoring a wooden bridge... So, I have much to say about all this and more - And despite my tough row observation, I promise not to whine. View all posts by Will Truax

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