Conway P. Coe was born in Calvert County, Maryland, on October 21, 1897, and moved to the Washington, D.C., area at an early age. After receiving a B.A. from Randolph-Macon College he was hired as assistant examiner at the Patent Office but left five months later to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I.
After the war he worked for a rubber company and then returned to the Patent Office as an assistant examiner. While at the office he earned a law degree from George Washington University. In 1923 he joined a law firm in Akron, Ohio, and later returned to Washington to open his own office.
President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him commissioner of patents, and he entered service on June 2, 1933. At 35, he was one of the youngest individuals to head the office.
In a report to the secretary of commerce in his first year, Coe recommended more hiring to reduce backlogs and a significant investment of resources to improve the patent subject matter classification system. Backlogs declined in the following years. Eventually more resources were devoted to classification. Coe also recommended a written examination for persons registering to represent clients before the office, which began in 1934.
In 1935 the office granted patent number 2,000,000 under the numbering system started in 1836. In 1936 Coe presided over a centennial celebration of the Patent Act of 1836. The Patent Office Society presented the office with a bronze bust of Thomas Jefferson that is on display today in the Lutrelle F. Parker Sr. Patent Search Facility at the USPTO headquarters.
In 1939 Congress amended the patent statute to, among other things, shorten the two-year grace period for filing patent applications to one year and create a board of interference examiners. In 1940 the responsibility for registering copyrights for labels and prints transferred from the Patent Office to the Library of Congress.
The Supreme Court in 1941 decided Cuno Engineering Corp. v. Automatic Devices Corp., which was thought to introduce a “flash of genius” test into patent law. In the 1952 Patent Act, Congress rejected the flash of genius test by stating, “Patentability shall not be negatived by the manner in which the invention was made.”
During Coe’s time the Supreme Court decided several cases involving the relationship between patents, patent licenses, patent misuse, and antitrust laws and policies. Cases included General Talking Pictures Corp. v. Western Electric Co. (1938), Morton Salt Co. v. G.S. Suppiger Co. (1942), and United States v. Univis Lens Co. (1942).
During World War II much of the Patent Office moved to Richmond, Virginia, to make office space available in Washington for the War and Navy departments. The size of the Patent Office staff declined during that period. In 1943 a patent issued for a telephone system was one of the largest patent documents to date, with 174 sheets of drawings and 220 pages of written description for a total of 394 pages.
Coe resigned as commissioner on June 15, 1945. He was the third-longest serving head of the office, after Thornton (1802-28) and Robertson (1921-33). In addition to serving as head of the Patent Office, Coe served during World War II as a member of the National Defense Research Committee and executive secretary of the National Planning Committee.
After he left the Patent Office he became vice president and head of the patent department for Radio Corporation of America (RCA) until his retirement in 1957. He was an avid golfer and a member of the Congressional Country Club. He died October 23, 1982, in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at the age of 85.
P.J. Federico, ed., Biographical Sketches of the Commissioners of Patents, Conway P. Coe, 18 JPOS 207 (1936).
USPTO, Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Patents (1933 to 1945).
USPTO, The Story of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1988).