Every organization to some extent reflects the work of the leaders who have guided it over time. The 55 profiles presented here provide a look at the varied backgrounds, interests, and accomplishments of the individuals who led the office from 1802 to 2009.
The first leader, William Thornton, was the designer of the U.S. Capitol Building, one of the three commissioners of the new city of Washington, D.C., and a close friend of James Madison and George Washington. Nearly all of them were lawyers. Several were inventors, politicians, or soldiers. One was a fighter pilot shot down over Europe in World War II and held as a prisoner of war. Another was the first openly gay man ever confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
They held the top position under various titles: Chief, Superintendent, Commissioner of Patents, Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, and Director. Beginning in 1982 they also held the title of Assistant Secretary of Commerce or Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property.
The first leaders were appointed by the secretary of state. Since 1836 they have been appointed by the president with Senate confirmation.
The United States started granting patents in 1790, the year of the first patent act. A three-member board chaired by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson granted the earliest patents. It was in 1802 that the State Department appointed an official, William Thornton, to a full-time job of administering the patent act. That is often considered the date when the Patent Office began as a distinct organization.
The 55 biographies contain information about the backgrounds of the leaders before appointment, developments in the office and the patent and trademark systems during their terms, and their lives after leaving the office. The USPTO values its rich history. Oil paintings of William Thornton, Henry Remsen Jr., who was Jefferson’s clerk, and inventor Robert Fulton hang in the director’s office today.
These biographies include 32 that were published by the Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society in 1936 (identified by footnotes). The USPTO is grateful to the Patent and Trademark Office Society for permission to republish them. The remaining biographies have been newly researched and written to complete the collection for the period from 1802 through 2009. The biographies of the most recent directors of the USPTO will be added to the collection several years after their tenures, in order to gain a historical perspective on their terms in office.