Thomas E. Robertson


Following Mr. Coulston's term of office, which was the shortest on record, comes Mr. Robertson's, which was the longest [Note: While Mr. Robertson had the longest term as commissioner, Dr. Thornton was the longest-serving head of the Patent Office]. Having been appointed by President Harding, he served under Presidents Coolidge and Hoover and remained nearly four months under President Roosevelt.

Mr. Robertson was born May 7, 1871, in Washington, D. C., and educated in the local public schools. He studied in the George Washington University and the National University Law School, and holds honorary degrees from National University and Bates College.

As a young man he served an "apprenticeship" in the office of his father, T. J. W. Robertson, who was not only a prominent patent attorney, but also an inventor of note. Thus, it was only natural that the patent system and Patent Office early became the absorbing interest of Mr. Robertson, and that when installed as its head, he threw himself into the task of rebuilding the Office in one of its most critical periods with an enthusiasm and energy seldom surpassed.

Prior to his appointment he had been a member of the patent law firm of Robertson and Johnson, and had served a term as president of the American Patent Law Association.

Mr. Robertson was Commissioner from April 6, 1921, to June 25, 1933. At the outset, and throughout his term, he was faced on the one hand with the greatest flood of applications for patents in the history of the Office and on the other hand he was hampered by an unparalleled drain upon the examining personnel by resignations, due to salaries too low for the qualifications required. By unremitting effort a series of salary increases were obtained, which largely reduced the personnel turnover, and with the advent of the "depression" this practically ceased. Also by a series of increases to the force the number of examiners was able, first to keep abreast of the work, and finally to make substantial gains. The number of examining divisions increased from 49 to 65. Starting with an arrearage in the work of 11 months in April 1921, there was an arrearage of only four months in cases awaiting action on June 30, 1933.

Many administrative and legislative changes occurred. The number of Assistant Commissioners was increased from two to three; and the membership of the Board of Appeals was increased to nine. A board of four Supervisory Examiners took over the training of new examiners and worked for uniformity in practice and in matters of form and expression. Outstanding among the legislative changes during this period were the plant patent act, the provision for the filing in the Patent Office of notices of patent suits, the marking of patented articles with the patent numbers, the reduction in the time for renewing forfeited applications from two years to one year, and the shortening of the time for response to Office actions from one year to six months.

In 1925 Mr. Robertson was sent to the Hague as the Chairman of the American Delegation to the convention to negotiate a treaty on industrial property.

Mr. Robertson is a resident of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and since leaving the Office has resumed the practice of patent law.

[Mr. Robertson died in December 1957.]


*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.