Samuel Sparks Fisher


The occasion needed the man, and when it was announced that Col. Fisher was persuaded to take the Commissionership, satisfaction among the friends of the patent system was universal and heartfelt. His administration of the Patent Office marked a turning point in its history. He was instrumental in obtaining remedial legislation and instituting reforms in the processes and conduct of the Office that were not only essential to correct manifest abuses that had been gradually acquired, but which placed it upon a higher plane of usefulness and efficiency than it had ever attained before.

Samuel Sparks Fisher was born April 11, 1832, in southern Michigan in what was then a frontier region. Most of his early life was spent in New York, Philadelphia, and vicinity. His father, Dr. James C. Fisher, was for some years professor of chemistry in the University of New York, and was afterward associated with Prof. Morse in his electro-magnetic experiments. The boy, Samuel, was a precocious child and advanced in learning rapidly, reading a primer at the age of two, and the Bible fluently at the age of four. Much to his advantage was the close association with his learned, cultivated, and sympathetic father, who imparted to him a wealth of literary and scientific knowledge. The child was much in his father's laboratory, and early developed a taste for chemistry and mechanics, and acquired a familiarity with them, which he afterward carried with conspicuous advantage into his profession.

Young Fisher completed his education in Philadelphia, graduating from high school with honors, and then immediately secured a high school teaching position, at the same time studying law in the office of the Hon. Francis Wharton. Thence he went in 1854 to Cincinnati, where he finished his law studies at the office of Taft, Keys & Perry. In 1856 he married a cousin and then settled in that city to assume his life work.

He at once specialized in the practice of patent law, for which his early environment and parental influence made him qualified on the technical side. A combination of rare talents in law, science, mechanics, and intellectual attributes generally, conferred success upon him from the very start of his career. It is said that his facility and clearness of presentation made him sometimes appear almost a master of the courts. Without weariness or worriment, he passed lightly, almost playfully, through the difficulties which yield to most men only after protracted and painful labor. While yet young in years, he had become established in an extensive and most responsible practice.

When Ohio was invaded during the Civil War in 1864, he volunteered his services and was appointed to the colonelcy of an Ohio National Guard regiment. His military experience, while brief, was sufficient to show his capacity for leadership. His talents as a commander became at once evident and received immediate recognition by his being placed at the head of a brigade and by being called to exercise responsibility beyond the duties of his titular office.

Returning to civil life, he resumed his professional career. His conspicuous reputation as a patent lawyer led Hon. J. D. Cox, then Secretary of the Interior under President Grant, to suggest his appointment as Commissioner of Patents. He accepted the appointment, and occupied this position from April, 1869, until November, 1870.

Though his administration was brief, his accomplishments were large. His was the soul of directness. He had the faculty of discarding the extraneous and touching upon the pith of every subject he examined. No matter how obscure the situation, no matter how obstructive the surroundings, he had no difficulty in seeing the essential and basic propositions that underlay the problem investigated. And what was more important, he saw at once.

He first addressed himself to the task of improving the personnel of the examining corps. He sensed at once the importance of the character and qualifications of the men who make the examination of the prior art, and proceeded to introduce an examination system for selecting appointees which was based solely upon the fitness of the candidates for the designated position. The result was probably the first tests ever established for entrance into the civil service that were rigid, searching and competitive in character. They comprised all the elements of the modern merit system and anticipated its general introduction by almost a generation. It is true that there were conventions observed previous thereto in which candidates for admission to the civil service were interrogated, but it is said that the probing was neither deep nor embarrassing to the beneficiaries of political favoritism.

The result of Commissioner Fisher's policy was shown in the character of the new members of the corps, who in all the requirements of the position readily demonstrated a superiority over those in office who had come in under the old order. Secretary of the Interior Cox, who was a powerful barrier to the progress of many a corrupt influence and who was most anxious to improve the methods of government administration, gave his testimony of the effect of the new policy in the Patent Office in the following words: "No one could become even superficially acquainted with the organization of that important bureau without seeing that a spirit of emulation and zeal had taken the place of a listless and negligent performance of duty."

If Commissioner Fisher demonstrated nothing else than the efficiency and morality of the merit system, his administration would have been among the most notable. And yet this was but one of several similarly vital reforms he introduced. The vigor with which the new commissioner applied himself to improving the personnel was extended to the general reorganizing of the Office. Not content with introducing one innovation after another within his legal powers, he went to Congress and asked for legislation to strengthen his hand and to extend the scope of the institution's usefulness.

He made important and far-reaching changes in the matter of the drawings. Under the existing law the applicant furnished but one drawing for the use of the Office, under which system the chances of loss and destruction through sheer repeated handling can easily be imagined. Fisher contracted for the making of ten photographic copies of each drawing, for the use of the Office. His immediate predecessor had advocated the use of the then new method of photo-lithography to reproduce the drawings for copies of patents, but Commissioner Fisher was the first to utilize the reproductive arts for that purpose. He required that the drawings conform to a uniform and artistic standard, so that the success of the innovation should be secured, and these rules are the precursors of our present satisfactory and complete regulations.

He inaugurated the printing of the entire specification and drawings in copies for sale to the public in lieu of the publication of the expensive Patent Office Report containing what might be termed the patent abstracts.

Decidedly the most beneficial innovation was the periodical publication of the Commissioner's decisions. A weekly list of claims was furnished to subscribers beginning January 1869, and to this during that year was added a pamphlet containing the Commissioner's decisions. By section 20 of the patent act approved July 8, 1870, authorization was given to print copies of the claims of current issues of patents, and copies of such laws, decisions, rules, regulations, and directions as may be necessary for the information of the public. In this manner was Commissioner Fisher's idea later embodied by law into the present Official Gazette. It goes without saying that nothing could so crystalize the practice, uncover its faults, render it uniform, and make it capable of development as the publication of the decisions. Patent practice became a thing of greater certainty from that time on, and the splendid structure of legal principles that sprang from this beginning is a fitting monument for the foundation on which it is based.

But Col. Fisher was not only a pioneer; he was also a builder. He not only opened up new territory, but proceeded to develop it. His decisions were as illuminating, logical and concise as to necessarily compel attention. Questions that had previously appeared to be unsolvable were reduced to simplicity; practices that had grown involved and indeterminate were clarified and given logical direction. But for lack of space, numerous decisions might be cited to illustrate his vigor of style and characteristic terseness of language.

Commissioner Fisher's activities in securing remedial legislation from Congress were singularly successful. In addition to the legislation leading to the publication of the Official Gazette, and the photo-lithographing of patents, he was also instrumental in placing on the statute book, with the powerful aid of Representative Jenkes, chairman of the Committee on Patents, the consolidated patent act of 1870. This act codified the law and, in addition, presented many new features, which, being given elsewhere, are not repeated here. One of the greatest inconveniences corrected by this legislation was the old requirement that models should be filed with the application. Commissioner Fisher had recommended dispensing with all models except when in the discretion of the Commissioner it was absolutely necessary.

Another reform which the Commissioner advocated and which was later incorporated into the procedure, was the cancellation of the illogical practice of citing rejected applications as references to defeat new applications.

Thus, practically every one of the numerous recommendations made by Commissioner Fisher was given legal effect, to the great benefit of his administration and for the permanent good of the patent system. Having placed the bureau in a state of efficiency and initiated the necessary improvements in the patent laws, he considered his special assignment completed, and when Secretary Cox resigned from President Grant's cabinet, he endeavored to withdraw from official life. He was prevailed upon to cancel his resignation, but finally renewed it, and left the Patent Office.

The demand for his services was such that within a year of his resignation he was retained in cases in almost all the larger cities from Boston and New York to New Orleans and San Francisco. In 1872 he formed a partnership with Gen. Duncan, who opened an office in New York, while Col. Fisher continued to make Cincinnati his headquarters.

In spite of his preeminence in the profession, entailing an enormous burden of work upon him and necessitating constant travel, he found time to prepare a series of reports on decisions involving patent rights. They were published under the title of "Fisher's Patent Cases", and the labor of collecting the material and editing the decisions was prodigious.

From the time of his retirement from the Patent Office to the close of his life, his progress was rapid and unbroken. It was while thus in the full tide of prosperity, surrounded by all that could make life attractive, and with unusual capabilities for appreciating and enjoying it, that he was surprised by sudden death. On a summer excursion down the Susquehanna, in an open boat, accompanied only by his ten year old son, the rapids below Harrisburg upset and wrecked their craft, claiming both lives. Thus died Samuel S. Fisher on August 14, 1874, at the age of 42.

On the day of his funeral the Patent Office was ordered closed by his successor, Commissioner Leggett.


*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.