John D. Craig was born in Ireland in 1766. He was a teacher at the Baltimore Union School and the master at an academy in Baltimore. In 1828 he led the founding of the Ohio Mechanics Institute of Cincinnati, which became the College of Engineering and Applied Science of the University of Cincinnati.
After Secretary of State Martin Van Buren transferred Patent Office Superintendent Thomas Jones to another position in the State Department, he appointed Craig superintendent the next day, June 11, 1829.
Craig’s tenure was marked by controversies. Patent historian Kenneth W. Dobyns concluded, “An examination of the record shows that Dr. Craig accomplished a lot during his tenure, but he was arrogant, subject to rages, disagreeable to patent applicants and their agents, and a domineering tyrant toward the subordinate employees in the Patent Office.”
Craig started by investigating the office’s finances. When he compared the number of patents granted with the fee collections deposited in the Treasury, he discovered a shortage of over $4,000. He requested explanations from several people, including former Superintendent Thornton’s widow, but found no evidence of embezzlement.
The Patent Office continued to operate under the Patent Act of 1793, which did not provide for examination of patent applications. Unlike his predecessors Thornton and Jones, Craig did not read the specifications of patent applications. He reportedly believed that under the 1793 statute if the fees were paid for a patent application, a patent should issue even if its contents were nonsense. The Act of 1793 intended that the courts should sort out patent rights.
By the time of his first annual report on the condition of the Patent Office in December 1829, Craig had established a regular system for arranging patent models and patent drawings by subject matter. By 1831 he reported that all papers, drawings, and models in the Patent Office were arranged so they could be found quickly. This may have been the first U.S. subject matter classification system for inventions.
In 1829 he announced the construction of an addition to Blodgett’s Hotel, home of the Patent Office since 1810, and that the Patent Office would relocate there. He complained that “at present the Patent Office is a source of revenue, which, it is presumed, the framers of its laws never intended, and the compensation received by those connected with it is far less, in proportion to their labor and responsibility, than in any other office within the District.” He would make this complaint frequently in the years to come.
By 1834 the Patent Office had generated and paid into the Treasury $110,000 in excess of its costs over the years. Craig wanted the money used for a new fireproof building for the Patent Office, which Congress authorized in 1836 after the end of Craig’s tenure.
Craig hired a former student of his as a clerk and allowed him to engage in the business of preparing drawings for patent applicants outside of office hours. The clerk’s business competed with William Parker Elliot’s, who Secretary of State Van Buren had allowed to operate in the Patent Office as a freelance draftsman when the secretary transferred Craig’s predecessor out of the Patent Office.
Elliot filed complaints with the secretary charging Craig with malfeasance and incompetence. The secretary appointed an officer to take depositions of everyone in the Patent Office and several outsiders. As a result the secretary dismissed Craig from his position, and his service ended on January 31, 1835. President Andrew Jackson was said to have approved the dismissal.
Elliot later created the design for the Patent Office building of which construction began in 1836 and which today houses two Smithsonian museums.
Craig died in 1846.
Kenneth. W. Dobyns, The Patent Office Pony – A History of the Early Patent Office (2d ed. Docent Press 2016).
Stacy V. Jones, The Patent Office (1971).
USPTO, The Story of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1988).
Edward. C. Walterscheid, To Promote the Progress of Useful Arts: American Patent Law and Administration, 1789-1836 (1998).