Thomas P. Jones was born in Herefordshire, England, in 1774. He immigrated to the United States after being trained as a physician and lived in Philadelphia as early as 1796.
He was a professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the College of William and Mary and held other academic positions. He returned to Philadelphia in 1825 to become a professor at the Franklin Institute and the editor of its journal.
When William Thornton died in 1828, Secretary of State Henry Clay appointed Jones as Thornton’s successor as Superintendent of the Patent Office. He entered service on April 12, 1828. It was a bitter disappointment to William Elliot, Thornton’s chief clerk, who had expected to be given the job.
When Jones announced his appointment, he said it would be good for the Journal of the Franklin Institute. After he moved to Washington, D.C., the journal for the first time published notices of all U.S. patents and detailed descriptions of selected patents.
Jones ran the office his own way. He published a new Patent Office pamphlet in 1828 that allowed references to the patent drawings in the specification, a practice still followed today. The pamphlet expanded requirements for the specification. It also suggested that the specification close with a paragraph beginning with something like, “What I claim is . . . .” This may have been a forerunner of the claim requirement that would be codified in the Patent Act of 1836.
Although patents were granted without examination under the Patent Act of 1793, Jones, like Thornton, sometimes told patent applicants that their inventions were old or unworkable. In 1830, the year after he left the Patent Office, Jones wrote that the public interest takes precedence. He said, “The greater number of patents are obtained for things which are either old or frivolous, and have no claim, therefore, to respect . . . .”
In October 1828, Elliot sent a letter to the secretary of state complaining that Jones insisted on opening all of the mail himself. Elliot claimed that during the tenure of Jones’s predecessor, many applicants had sent presents of money to the superintendent and that the letters were opened in the clerk’s room and the money returned. Elliot charged that when Jones opened all letters, little or no money was returned. Jones denied the charge. It appeared that Jones had provoked Elliott by interfering with a family business Elliot’s sons were running out of the Patent Office.
On June 10, 1829, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren transferred Jones from his position in the Patent Office to another clerkship in the State Department at the same salary. At about the same time he was appointed dean of the medical faculty at what is now George Washington University. Jones continued to have access to patent records in the Patent Office, allowing him to publish them in the Journal of the Franklin Institute.
Van Buren decided Elliot must vacate his position, but one of his sons, William Parker Elliot, was allowed to be a free-lance draftsman in the Patent Office.
Jones was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1834. After passage of the landmark Patent Act of 1836, Jones returned to the Patent Office as one of the first patent examiners in the new examination system.
Jones remained the editor of the Journal of the Franklin Institute until his death in 1848.
Kenneth W. Dobyns, The Patent Office Pony – A History of the Early Patent Office (2d ed. Docent Press 2016), pp. 107-111.
Edward C. Walterscheid, To Promote the Progress of Useful Arts: American Patent Law and Administration, 1789-1836 (1998).
USPTO, The Story of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1988).
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Thomas P. Jones (last visited Nov. 28, 2016), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_P._Jones.