Thomas C. Theaker


The Civil War having given an impetus to creative genius as applied to the useful arts, entirely without precedent, it was to the problems of this period that the tenth Commissioner of Patents turned his attention, his term of office being recognized as one of the most important, in one aspect, in the history of the Patent Office.

Thomas Clarke Theaker was born in York County, Pennsylvania, on February 1, 1812. He completed his preparatory studies while in Pennsylvania, and in 1830 moved to Bridgeport, Ohio. There he acquired practical knowledge of the mechanical arts through his work as a machinist and wheelwright. He was elected to the 36th Congress, serving from March 4, 1859 to March 3, 1861. Having failed of reelection, he obtained an appointment as a member of a commission to investigate the Patent Office. Shortly afterward he was appointed a member of the Board of Examiners-in-Chief, and he continued in that office until his appointment to the Commissionership, which office he held from August 17, 1865 to January 20, 1868.

After leaving the office of Commissioner, he went into the practice of patent law in Washington, having as his partner, his former associate on the Board of Examiners-in-Chief, J. J. Combs. His death took place on July 16, 1883, at Oakland, Maryland.

At the time Mr. Theaker assumed the office of Commissioner almost the entire population of the country had felt the effects of the readjustments demanded by the war, during the course of which great numbers of the young men had left the farms and workshops for the armies. Those left behind had to provide the supplies to meet a greatly accelerated rate of consumption, both in war material and the ordinary articles of commerce. This burden was one which could not have been carried had it not been for the contributions of American inventors of the needed facilities for keeping up with the new organization of society.

Many of the new ideas which were thus put into practical use were inventions of immediate military value. The muzzle-loading gun gave place to the breech-loader, the smooth-bore cannon were rifled, field telegraph service modified the military intelligence branch of the service, and army clothing, shoes, tentage, and equipment were produced by improved machinery and carried by improved means of transportation.

In the field of agriculture the mower, reaper, and threshing machine did a war duty of vital importance, and the loss of man power on the farms was more than compensated for through the use of this improved machinery. Notwithstanding the fact that nearly a million men were taken from industrial pursuits during the first two years of the war, "the third year found a larger breadth of grain upon the ground" than in the year preceding the conflict!

During the active war period it was impossible to consider the patent aspects of the many improvements introduced, and, therefore, there is a sharp rise in the curve representing applications filed, in the three years immediately following the war. Each of the years 1865, 66, and 67, showed roughly a fifty per cent increase over the preceding year in the number of applications. The highwater mark for applications filed, then established, proved to be the average of the new business of the office for a long period of years, or until the important upward trend began in the early eighties.

As revealed in his first report to Congress, January 31, 1866, the first problem of the Commissioner when the deluge of applications came upon him was to increase the office force, and, after accomplishing this end, in a fair measure, he found the matter of space wherein to carry on the examining and clerical work a most pressing problem. Then, with a view of reducing the great number of appeals taken from the primary examiners to the Board of Examiners-in-Chief, he secured the passage of the Act of June 27, 1866, providing for a first appeal fee of ten dollars.

A peculiar personal trait of Commissioner Theaker was his strong aversion to writing detailed legal decisions. He is credited with saying, "I'll either affirm or reverse, but will not write a long explanation. My action may be all right and my reasons all wrong!" Only the first few decisions signed by Theaker set forth any detailed discussion of the subject matter considered. The remainder include only the formal paragraphs affirming or reversing the decision appealed from.

With perhaps but one exception, no new practice or policies of importance find their inception in his term of office. This exception was an attempt to institute opposition proceedings in reissue cases, but the practice was short-lived, his action being declared unlawful by a judge of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

The attention given to a then important feature of the Patent Office, of which now barely a remnant remains, might be noted in passing. The quotation is a comment by Commissioner Theaker on the Model Hall. "The thirty years which have succeeded have seen the germ thus planted expand into magnificent proportions, until the saloons on the upper floor of the Patent Office are now among the chief public attractions of the seat of government, and thronged daily by visitors from all parts of the country as well as from beyond the ocean." The museum-like atmosphere of the Patent Office of that day presents a striking contrast to the efficient and business-like equipment in its present environment in the Commerce Building.


*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.