Robert Holland Duell was a native of the State of New York, born in Warren, on December 20, 1824. He studied in Syracuse Academy and took up the profession of law, being admitted to the bar in 1845. Three years later he removed to Cortland and established himself in law there, continuing to make this his home for the greater part of his later life, to the time of his death on February 11, 1891.
Mr. Duell early became interested in politics and became District Attorney of Cortland County in 1850, which office he held until 1855, when he became District Judge. After serving four years in this capacity he was elected as Republican representative to Congress. In all, he spent eight years in Congress, 1859-1863, and 1871-1875.
In October of 1875 he became Commissioner of Patents, his appointment being heartily endorsed by the Republican press, and it is not recorded that there was opposition elsewhere.
His report to Congress for the year 1875 shows his appreciation of the importance of the position and of the work of the Patent Office. The Scientific American characterizes this report as "one of the most straightforward, practical documents ever issued from the Patent Office; and we hope Congress will adopt the excellent suggestions it contains."
At this time the examining corps consisted of twenty-four Principal Examiners and a like number in each of the grades of First, Second and Third Assistants, the entire force of the Office consisting of 351 persons. In the early part of 1875 Congress had discussed a bill to reduce the personnel and appropriation. The Commissioners' Report strenuously resisted such tendencies, and then went on to ask for an increase in the personnel and an increase in the annual appropriation! It also stressed the inadequate housing of the bureau, pointing out that the twenty-four examining divisions were crowded into twenty-four rooms, each about twenty feet square, and each room being occupied by from five to twelve persons, together with desks, cases, models, etc.
Mr. Duell also recommended the passage of a law providing for the publishing of all court decisions relating to patent matters in the Official Gazette, such publication having the same force and effect as though published by order of the court. Another recommendation was for an annual appropriation of $5,000 for the Patent Office library.
In accordance with the holding of the Supreme Court that abandoned files were not proper references to be used against applications, Mr. Duell on February 3, 1876, ordered that all files, drawings, models, and all letters and papers relating to abandoned applications should henceforth be preserved in the secret archives of the Office. Orders were also given that none of these models were to be open for inspection by the general public for mere matter of curiosity, that only those would be permitted to examine them who had definite reasons for so doing, which reasons should be acceptable to the Office.
The judicial training of Mr. Duell is well shown in his decisions, which indicate a thorough grasp of the law relating to patents and an ability to interpret the law as applied to the individual case. Though Mr. Duell held the position only a little over a year he left his mark upon the Office.
His son, Charles Holland Duell, born in Cortland, New York, in 1850 followed his father's footsteps both as a patent lawyer and as Commissioner of Patents.
*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.