Robert C. Watson was born in Washington, D.C., on November 21, 1890. His father was a patent attorney.
Watson received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Lehigh University, where he was an intercollegiate heavy-weight wrestling champion. His first job was in Baltimore with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He earned a law degree from Georgetown University in 1917.
He served in the U.S. Army in World War I. In 1922 he married Sarah Latimer, daughter of a U.S. senator from South Carolina. Watson practiced patent law in Washington for about 30 years until President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him commissioner of patents. He took the oath of office on February 18, 1953.
Watson faced a rising patent application backlog. Reducing the backlog was a priority for much of his eight-year tenure, along with obtaining funds to improve the patent subject matter classification system. The Commissioner’s Annual Report for 1954 observed, “The Classification Group has never been fully staffed in accordance with its needs.” Congress cut appropriations for the office each year in 1953, 1954, and 1955. In 1956 appropriations rose substantially. In 1957 the office adopted an eight-year plan for backlog reduction.
According to recollections by a retired patent examining supervisor writing in the Journal of the Patent Office Society, Watson held conferences with groups of examining supervisors to learn first-hand the needs of the examiners. The conferences were popular not only for the discussions but also for the cold lemonade and cookies Watson served. Many offices in the Commerce Department building that housed the Patent Office were not air-conditioned in the 1950s.
In 1954, in an early move toward automation, the secretary of commerce formed an Advisory Committee on Application of Machines to Patent Operations. The committee’s report recommended that the office should undertake research and development on automation.
Congress enacted the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, superseding earlier atomic energy legislation. The new legislation repealed a prohibition against the patenting of inventions in the production of fissionable materials, but retained the prohibition against patenting atomic weapons.
In 1958 Congress enacted a law to create a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in the Patent Office. Congress enlarged the patent Board of Appeals to have up to 15 members. Members of the patent Board of Appeals at that time were appointed by the president with Senate confirmation.
Watson made his mark on U.S. trademark law and practice by taking the hyphen out of the word “trademark” in all office communications. The change was a departure from the English spelling “trade-mark” or “trade mark.” According to office lore, Watson and the assistant commissioner of trademarks hosted a happy reception to celebrate removing the hyphen.
In 1960 Watson led the U.S. delegation to a diplomatic conference in Lisbon to revise the Paris Convention, which dated back to 1883 with U.S. membership from 1887. In 1960 the Patent Office granted the Joel patent for an accounting system, with 620 pages and 243 claims, one of the largest granted to that time. It was larger than the Voss patent granted in 1943 that had been cited as an early, very large patent document.
Watson resigned as commissioner on March 1, 1961. In his retirement years he resided in Gibson Island, Maryland. He died on April 26, 1983, at age 92.
Hillel Marans, Forty Years of U.S. Patent Office 1917-1956, 39 JPOS 737 (1957).
USPTO, Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Patents (1953-61).
USPTO, The Story of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1988).