Thomas Ewbank


Thomas Ewbank, third Commissioner of Patents, was born of humble parentage in Durham, England, March 11, 1792. He was apprenticed in boyhood to the trade of sheet metal working; and from 1812 to 1817 was employed as a tin-smith in London. There he developed the belief that monarchical institutions limited ones capabilities, and so he emigrated to the United States in 1819 and settled in New York. He then engaged in the manufacture of copper, lead and tin tubing for sixteen years and obtained patents thereon. Having attained a modest competency from the business of tube making, he devoted his entire attention in the next few years to travel, science, literature, the history of invention, and its future development. In 1845-48, he visited South America, not merely as a pleasure seeking traveller, but with a mind alert to the lessons to be learned from a wider experience of natural phenomena and the industrial arts of remote races. He returned with a collection of objects from Brazil that became widely known as the "Ewbank Collection." The lessons of this voyage were subsequently published in a volume entitled "Life in Brazil: A Journal of a Visit to the Land of the Cocoa and the Palm."

In 1849 President Taylor appointed him Commissioner of Patents. He assumed office under Secretary Thomas Ewing (Commissioner Ewing's grandfather), May 4, 1849, and retained it until November 1, 1852. At the beginning of his administration the new Commissioner addressed letters to the governors of all the states requesting them to send to the Patent Office any historical data of early inventions and patents preserved in State and Colonial archives, which request brought forth some very interesting history of the industrial arts, all of which was published in the Patent Office Reports.

Mr. Ewbank was keen to utilize the Patent Office report to arouse popular interest and enthusiasm in the industrial application of physical and chemical science. Thus he published communications from persons in every part of the country regarding the infancy of various industries; such as dyeing, spinning, weaving, type founding, paper making, pin making, and others.

During the first year as Commissioner of Patents, 1955 applications were filed. There were four principal examiners; and in that year four assistant examiners were added to his force. He had the uniform experience of Commissioners in the matters of pressure of work owing to insufficient help. He complained that much of the work of necessity done hastily, had to be reviewed and reexamined and the correspondence growing out of it and the delays resulting from it "showed conclusively that hasty examinations of applications for patents, like hasty legislation, are productive of great evils and of little or no good."

The beginnings of our present Rules of Practice were published in the Report for 1851, many of the headings having still a familiar appearance. Commissioner Ewbank advocated the separation of the Patent Office from the Department of the Interior, saying that the vesting of an exterior controlling power over its administration could hardly prove otherwise than prejudicial.

In 1851 the Examiners Resumés, a theretofore annual feature of the Patent Office Report, were omitted on account of the pressure of business and complaints of partiality in the comparison of inventions patented, and were never resumed. In that year the World's Exposition was held in London. The United States Patent Office was represented there and American inventions displayed, a detailed account being included in the Report for that year.

Mr. Ewbank's library comprised books on astrology, Church history, natural science, philosophy, secret cures, magic, chemistry, medicine, Greek and Latin classics, agriculture, gardening, universal history, biography, travels, technics and mechanics, commerce, and architecture—the collection indicating the wide range of his mental activities. At a single auction in Washington, D. C. in 1856 over 2,000 of these volumes were sold.

As an author he made a considerable contribution to literature, writing treatises on hydraulics and natural history, philosophical discourses, and works of an anthropological nature. His work on hydraulics is still an authority on the historical aspects of the subject.

Ewbank's literary works and public life disclose a sturdy, honorable character and a mind capable of weighing and segregating the things of real value in human activities. The Patent Office should value his connection with its history. He died in New York City, September 16, 1870.


*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.