General Mortimer D. Leggett, the thirteenth Commissioner of Patents, while demonstrating unusual ability in several fields of activity, came into his greatest prominence in his military career, and it is as a soldier that he is most widely known.
He was a warm friend of Gen. U. S. Grant and it is said when Grant became president Gen. Leggett was offered several desirable positions, but stated that there was but one particular office which he would like to hold and if it became vacant he would be glad to be considered for it, and that was the office of Commissioner of Patents. When this office became vacant by the resignation of Mr. Fisher, Gen. Leggett was appointed, his term extending from January 16, 1871, until his resignation November 1, 1874.
Remembered as a true product of Ohio, Mr. Leggett was by birth a native of New York state, having been born at Ithaca, April 19, 1821. His ancestors came from England about the middle of the previous century. In 1836 the Leggett family settled in Ohio, and young Leggett worked hard during the days helping his father wrest a farm from the surrounding forest, doing his studying at night, by the light of hickory bark fires. In due course he graduated from the Kirkland Teachers' School at the head of his class.
He then began to prepare himself for a career in medical jurisprudence, but was delayed as he became at this time deeply interested in the matter of common schools, which cause was much in need of an energetic and devoted leader. Leggett and three other men stumped the state at their own expense in a campaign for free schools, achieving at least a partial success. While still quite a young man he organized in Akron the first system of graded schools west of the Alleghenies. In 1849 he was called to Warren, Ohio, and organized the school system at that place. There, in 1850, he began the practice of law. In 1857 he became superintendent of schools at Zanesville.
Leggett's tendency and capacity for organization soon found expression in his career as Commissioner. All of his ideas on running the Patent Office were not new, and many of them were turned down by Congress, but many more were put into effect, initiating practices still in force. For instance he recommended that the Patent Office be made a separate bureau, and that a separate court be established exclusively for the trial of patent cases, "to be composed of men eminent for their legal and judicial talents, and also distinguished for their expert knowledge of the subjects presented in the trial of cases growing out of patents." He also proposed to group the examining divisions, putting a Chief Examiner at the head of each group who would review all allowances and rejections of applications, and taking over the work of the board of Examiners-in-Chief and the Examiners of Interferences, which positions would be abolished. None of these changes were permanently adopted.
Commissioner Leggett did, however, effect a number of necessary changes in the new patent act of 1870, which was then in its trial period. The changes here did not go to the spirit of the act, but merely made its operation smoother and more equitable. He was a believer in extensions and recommended their re-adoption. He inveighed against the practice of granting design patents, recommending instead that such applicants have a certificate of registry, with authority to mark their productions "Registered", instead of using the misleading "Patented” term.
Early in his administration he had a reclassification of patents made.
He was enthusiastic over the improvement in the personnel obtained, or selected, by the new entrance examinations introduced by his predecessor, Commissioner Fisher, saying that they had "brought into the Office a class of intelligent, vigorous and enterprising young men whom it would have been difficult to obtain by any other system."
The office of third-assistant examiner was created during Commissioner Leggett's term, and he issued an order stating that one of these positions would be given to a lady if she passed the examination and was otherwise qualified. The system of having a lady clerk for each division was also instituted during Mr. Leggett's administration.
Commissioner Leggett's decisions show a quick perception of the equities and a desire to use as much dispatch in the case as was possible. He was of a practical turn of mind and, while trained in the law, apparently had not much taste for a prolonged legal discussion. He was liberal in his views of patentability but very decided in his opinions. In general, he effectively continued the work and policies of his notable predecessor, Mr. Fisher, and this period marked a distinct advance in the work and standards of the Patent Office.
During the Civil War period, a number of years before his commissionership, he had a distinguished military career, having been made a brigadier general on the personal recommendation of General Grant. General Leggett commanded his brigade in the fighting in 1862 along the Mississippi, being wounded at Champion Hills and Vicksburg. He played a major part in the blowing up of the fort at Vicksburg and the resulting capture of that place. After the fighting along the Mississippi, he participated in practically all of the battles in which General McPherson's army engaged. In 1863 he was breveted Major General. He marched with Sherman to the sea and up through the Carolinas. He was promoted to the grade of Major General of Volunteers, and resigned his commission in 1866.
After his term as Commissioner, General Leggett entered the practice of patent law at Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1884 he organized the Brush Electric Company and became its first president. This company, after a struggle, became very successful and was finally absorbed by the General Electric Company.
General Leggett was the author of a number of short articles and pamphlets. He was a good public speaker and frequently called upon for addresses. He was twice married, his first wife having died. His residence remained in Cleveland until his death on January 6, 1896.
*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.