Charles Mason


Born at Pompey, New York, October 24, 1804, the Honorable Charles Mason was the son of Chauncey and Esther Mason, grandson of Jonathan Mason and a descendant of Capt. John Mason, 1635. He graduated first in his class in the U. S. Military Academy, having as a classmate Robert E. Lee. He was appointed Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1829, and served as Assistant Professor of Engineering at the Military Academy from 1829 to 1831. In 1831 he resigned from the army to study law in New York City, being admitted to the bar in 1832. He practiced law at Newbury, N. Y., from 1832 to 1834 and in New York City from 1834 to 1836. In 1835 and 1836 he was acting editor of the New York Evening Post.

After that, he became successively District Attorney in Wisconsin Territory, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Iowa Territory, retiring on May 16, 1847. Subsequently, he served as President of two western railroads, and was then appointed Commissioner of Patents by President Pierce in 1853, serving until 1857. After leaving the Patent Office he practiced law in Burlington, Iowa, removing to Washington, D. C., in 1860 to become a member of a firm engaged in the practice of patent law. He continued in this work from 1861 to 1881, but within this interval he resumed his interest in politics, as is indicated by his having been offered the Democratic nomination for Governor of Iowa in 1861, and his actual nomination for that office, when, however, he failed of election. He published some pamphlets on financial subjects and was at one time editor of the Burlington Hawkeye. He died at Burlington, Iowa, on February 25, 1882. It is thus seen that Commissioner Mason was very versatile, his activity and interests embracing military, political, financial, legal and literary subjects.

The Commissioner's official family in 1856 included a chief clerk, twelve examiners, twelve assistant examiners, a draftsman, an agricultural clerk, a machinist, and a librarian.

Commissioner Mason, like some of his predecessors, struggled with the problem of giving to the patentee a more perfect title, one which it was hoped would be unassailable in the courts. He suggested some remedies for existing defects in the patent system, and commented adversely on the suggestion of giving up the examination system and going back to the registration system. He is said to have argued most eloquently for retaining this most effective known method of securing the constitutional right of inventors to their intellectual property.

This Commissioner took the step of substituting a brief description of the inventions patented for the then customary examiners' annual reports. He recommended the adoption of the English system of six months provisional or temporary patents in place of caveats covering twelve months as offering a better protection to inventors.

When the examining system was started, with one commissioner and one examiner, and for some time thereafter, all work was under the direct and immediate supervision of the Commissioner. But as the work increased this supervision became less and less until the Commissioner had direct contact with very few applications for patents. Commissioner Mason is credited with the institution of an appeal from the action of an examiner to the Commissioner of Patents. While probably informal at first, this appeal soon became an established factor in Patent Office practice.

At this stage in the growth of the Patent Office the model hall was the object of much Congressional solicitude. It stood unique as an exposition of progress in the arts and sciences. From time to time, as the arts developed, more space was required for the models, with the result that objection was raised in Congress to the use of the Patent Office building by the Secretary of the Interior. It was regretted by earlier writers that "some of the educational features of the old system could not have been retained by the Patent Office as a permanent adjunct, thus continuing to foster the feeling of proprietorship and personal interest once felt by the thousands of people throughout the country." It is said that this feeling is often spoken of by their descendants of today, who, making later pilgrimages to Washington, are disappointed to know that the glories of the model hall are no more.


*Republished with permission of the Patent and Trademark Office Society from the article Biographical Sketches of the Commissioners of Patents, 18 J.P.O.S. 145 (1936).  The United States Patent and Trademark Office is grateful for the Society’s assistance.