James Chamberlayne Pickett was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, on February 6, 1793. His family moved to Kentucky when he was a young boy. He attended the best schools, including the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. He served in the army during the War of 1812.
Pickett practiced law in Kentucky and was editor of a newspaper. He married Ellen Desha, daughter of Kentucky’s governor. He was elected to the Kentucky legislature, after which he spent four years in South America as a U.S. diplomat. He was fluent in several languages and a prolific writer on scientific subjects and diplomatic history.
Secretary of State John Forsyth appointed Pickett superintendent of the Patent Office on February 1, 1835. He was the fourth head of the office, then still operating under the Patent Act of 1793. Patents were issued without examination, but Pickett assigned an employee to advise patent applicants on the novelty of their inventions.
The draftsman who had been part of a dispute involving Pickett’s predecessor, Superintendent Craig, was dismissed from the Patent Office after Pickett became superintendent. Apparently Pickett helped the draftsman find a private drafting job.
Robert Mills worked temporarily as an in-house draftsman for the Patent Office during Pickett’s tenure. Mills, said to be a favorite of President Andrew Jackson, created the final design for the U.S. Treasury Building. Jackson placed the Treasury Building at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, obstructing the view between the White House and the Capitol.
Jackson appointed Mills supervising architect for construction of the Treasury Building and the new Patent Office begun in 1836. Senator John Ruggles of Maine and Henry Ellsworth, who was in charge of the Patent Office in 1836, both said the original Patent Office design was the work of William Parker Elliot, a Patent Office employee.
Pickett served only three months as superintendent. He resigned on April 30, 1835, to become the fourth auditor of the Treasury Department. He spent another seven years as a U.S. diplomat in South America and returned to Washington, D.C., where he was editor of the Congressional Globe. He died in Washington on July 10, 1872, at age 79, and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery.
Pickett was the last individual to hold the title Superintendent of the Patent Office for his entire term. Ellsworth was appointed superintendent on June 11, 1835. However, when the landmark Patent Act of 1836 was enacted the next year, Ellsworth became the first commissioner under the act.
Kenneth W. Dobyns, The Patent Office Pony – A History of the Early Patent Office (2d ed. Docent Press 2016).
James A. Padgett, 37 Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, No. 119 (1939).
University Press of Kentucky, The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (2009).
USPTO, The Story of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1988).