Ellis Spear


One of the many who, after the Civil War, were anxiously looking about for civilian employment and means of making a livelihood for themselves and their families was a young officer but lately retired from the Army of the Potomac where he had achieved a reputation for courage and ability. At the age of 31 a Brevet Brigadier General, and having received from Congress on two occasions the supreme recognition of merit and valor on the field of battle, General Spear left the military service and entered upon his new duties in the Patent Office with enthusiasm and devotion.

Born a Maine Yankee [on October 15, 1834], he mixed literature and farm work even to the extent of propping up one of the classics at the end of the row he was hoeing so that he could ponder the passages as he worked down the row, adding a new sentence on each trip around. Thus, partly in school and academy, and partly in the field and at the fireside, he fitted himself for college, until in 1854 he passed his entrance examinations and entered Bowdoin College in the class of 1858.

To make a Commissioner of Patents out of a farmer's boy, and especially one educated in the most classical of liberal arts courses, seems an extreme transition. It was nothing, however, to the transformation of a peaceful, peace-loving student into a soldier. He entered the United States Patent Office in 1865, being promoted through successive grades to the position of Assistant Commissioner. This position he resigned to enter the firm of Hill and Ellsworth.

After a few months as a partner in this firm, the Secretary of the Interior sent over a note to the F Street office asking the General to come to see him. He went, and when he returned he had accepted the Commissionership, just then becoming vacant. The records show that his first appointment to the Office was on November 20, 1865, that he was appointed Assistant Commissioner on November 1, 1874, and that he resigned that position on March 20, 1876. His appointment as Commissioner was on January 29, 1877. His governmental duties closed on October 31, 1878.

The principal characteristic of his decisions as Commissioner was their far-reaching application to future cases, coming years later, and impressing one at the present time as if they had been written only yesterday.

An unusual incident during his administration of the Patent Office was the fire of September, 1877, starting in the forenoon and gutting the model halls on the west and north sides of the building, and resulting in dispensing with models accompanying applications for patent, models up to such time having been usually required.

General Spear's forty years of life following his resignation as Commissioner was a period of most continuous intimate relation with the Patent Office. At the age of 70, and even at the age of 80, he was still seen about the halls in the old building. He also devoted much time during these years to numerous civic, educational and religious organizations.

He passed away in the spring of 1917, while spending the winter in Florida, as was his custom.


*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.