John Marshall Thacher


This Commissioner stands in a unique position in that he entered the Patent Office as a clerk and rose through the ranks to the top. He is an excellent representative of the average citizen who performs conscientiously and well the duties which come to him, and leaves upon the sands of time, footprints which are both few and faint. There is no evidence that Mr. Thacher took any active part in politics, and he seems to have received his appointment for merit.

He was born at Barre, Vermont, July 1, 1836, a son of the Rev. Joseph and Nancy A. Thacher. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1859 he taught school, and in the Civil War served as a captain in the Vermont Volunteers.

June 13, 1864, under the administration of Commissioner Holloway, he was appointed from Burlington, Vermont, as a temporary clerk. Near the end of the same year he became an assistant examiner, and August 1, 1867, he became a Primary Examiner, in which capacity he had the then very important class of harvesters. On July 1, 1869, he was detailed by Commissioner Fisher as Examiner of Interferences. The next year he was made a member of the Board of Examiners-in-Chief, and, two years after that, Assistant Commissioner. His appointment as Commissioner took effect November 1, 1874, and he occupied the office just eleven months.

Mr. Thacher was the first Examiner of Interferences, such contests having previously been tried before the Commissioner.

He was admitted to the bar at Alexandria, Va., it being presumed that he studied his law in the evenings, while employed in the Patent Office.

In 1873, he was commissioned by the President to represent the United States at a patent congress planned for the summer during the Vienna Exposition. Due to a disagreement between the various countries the congress became an informal gathering of persons prominent in patent matters, and Mr. Thacher attended its meetings as a private citizen.

In the depths of the depression following the panic in 1873 Mr. Thacher assumed the Commissionership, the atmosphere being manifestly unfavorable to any important forward movement, even if the new Commissioner had been inclined to press such a movement.

The bulk of his published decisions, especially those which he rendered as Assistant and as Acting Commissioner, concerned extensions, a subject which, like caveats and models, then much to the fore, is now lacking in current interest. The current comment and his decisions give the impression that he inclined to a mild standard of invention.

In 1874, the famous Supreme Court case of Brown v. Guild, 90 U. S. 181, upset one phase of the existing Office practice, and presented a grave question for settlement. Under this decision abandoned and forfeited applications could no longer be freely used as a ground of rejection for other parties, as had been the practice. This placed the Office in a predicament because abandoned applications and models were then accessible to the public and furnished abundant material for unscrupulous persons to use as a basis for future applications of their own. Commissioner Thacher attempted to meet the dilemma by ruling that in all such cases the examiner should communicate with the applicant who had abandoned his application, and with his attorney, for the purpose of establishing public use by ex parte affidavits. The Commissioner recognized the unreliability of evidence of this character, but apparently did not foresee another complication. The parties so communicated with, not infrequently made an emphatic denial of any public use, and filed a new application for the same invention!

So far as appears from the successive editions of the Rules of Practice, abandoned and forfeited applications continued to be cited as references until 1879. Meanwhile, the provision that abandoned applications were open to public inspection had been omitted from the Rules, appearing for the last time in the edition of September 1, 1875.

For about twenty years Mr. Thacher practiced law in Chicago, as a member of the firm of Coburn and Thacher, the business including harvesters, a subject on which the junior member of the firm had become expert while in the Office. It is believed that Mr. Thacher retired, in broken health, to his old home in Vermont, dying there. He never married.


*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.