Henry L. Ellsworth


When the Act of 1836 created the new office of Commissioner of Patents, the appointment of the then Superintendent of Patents, Henry L. Ellsworth, to the Commissionership proved both logical and wise. As Superintendent of Patents since his appointment in 1835, he had proved his ability by substituting order for chaos in the administration of a department which had never previously been conducted in a scientific and business-like manner. It is generally thought that the responsibility of initiating the policy under the new law, and new organization, was well placed.

The previous pattern of his life particularly fitted him for the assumption of his new duties.

Henry L. Ellsworth, born in Windsor, Connecticut, November 10, 1791, was the son of Oliver Ellsworth, a member of the Constitutional Congress, the leader of the Federalist Party in the National Senate, and a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court under Washington. Not only was his father identified with the early history of the country but his twin brother, William Wolcott Ellsworth, was also prominent politically, having been Governor of Connecticut.

It was natural, then, for Henry L. Ellsworth, to follow a public career. After graduating from Yale University, he studied law, practiced the profession, and engaged in farming, in which he early showed a special interest. In 1818 he was secretary of the Hartford County Agricultural Society. From 1819 to 1821 he was president of the Aetna Insurance Company. In 1830 he accepted an appointment from President Jackson as Chief Commissioner of Indian Tribes, in which capacity he made several journeys to the Rocky Mountains.

In April of 1835 he was elected mayor of Hartford. He resigned on June 15, 1835, having been appointed Superintendent of Patents by President Jackson. Passage of the Act of 1836 resulted in his appointment to the new office of Commissioner of Patents on July 6, 1836. His office force consisted of one examiner and six clerks and other subordinate employees.

In December the disastrous fire of 1836 destroyed all the records, models, and papers of the Patent Office and the task of restoration was not completed until after Ellsworth's administration. Fortunately Congress had previously provided for the erection of a new Patent Office Building, the F Street wing of which structure was completed in 1840.

Ellsworth took special interest in agriculture and was instrumental in procuring the first governmental appropriation in this field, as a result of which he is now referred to as the “father of the Department of Agriculture." As Commissioner of Patents, he performed many of the duties now exercised by the Department of Agriculture, and the annual reports of those days gave more space to this side of the activities of the Patent Commissioner than to the titular aspect of his position. In one year he examined the crops in ten states. He traveled extensively in pursuit of his duties and he inspected conditions with an expert eye. He was intimately acquainted with every angle of this field, and his annual reports are compendiums of useful knowledge and reviews of conditions, and advice in every branch of this large subject.

The pay of an examiner was then $1500, and although the purchasing power of the dollar was three to four times what it is today, Commissioner Ellsworth was obliged to plead with one of his examiners not to resign his position in order to enter private practice to increase his income.

During Ellsworth's administration the vulcanization of rubber and the electric telegraph were invented and patented. He aided Morse in obtaining the congressional appropriation of $30,000 to test the practicability of the telegraph. He sensed its importance with the observation: "Among the most brilliant discoveries of the age, the electric magnetic telegraph demands a conspicuous place; destined, as it is, to change as well as to hasten transmission of intelligence and so essentially affect the welfare of society, and all that concerns its further development will be hailed with joy."

He resigned the commissionership in 1845, and established himself at Lafayette, Indiana, as Land Commissioner of the United States. He bought extensive tracts and became the largest land owner and farmer in the West. He was one of the earliest to foretell the value of the prairie lands and one of the first to advocate the use of machinery in agriculture. It is said that he used probably the first mowing machine ever introduced on the prairies.

His principal writings were his official publications as Commissioner of Patents.

Ill health caused him to return to his native state in 1857 where he died on December 27, 1858. By his will his residuary estate in western lands was bequested to Yale University.


*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.