William Darius Bishop


The seventh Commissioner of Patents, William Darius Bishop, was descended from old New England stock, his original ancestor, Rev. John Bishop, having emigrated from England about 1640. Alfred Bishop, his father, was a native of Connecticut, where he followed his duties as an extensive canal and railroad contractor. Commissioner Bishop was born at Bloomfield, New Jersey, September 14, 1827, while his parents were temporary residents of that state; but he returned to Bridgeport, Connecticut, which became his permanent residence.

William Bishop entered Yale college at the age of 18, and is said to have become prominent as a political debater; and added to his honors the presidency of the Linonian Society. About the time of his graduation, 1849, the death of his father gave him the opportunity to successfully carry on the pending railroad building contracts. The completion of the Naugatuck Railroad found him becoming its first superintendent and later, in 1855, its president. After his term as Commissioner of Patents, he was likewise successively president of the New York and New Haven Railroad, and of the New York, New Haven & Hartford. Resigning the latter position in 1879, he remained a director, and at the time of his death, a quarter of a century later, he was yet a director and in addition vice-president. Interests in railroads were supplemented by directorships in banking and other corporations, including the Western Union Telegraph Company, in which he was a large stockholder.

Mr. Bishop also took an active part in politics. He was a member of both branches of the Connecticut legislature, in which capacity, he drafted and pushed through the General Railroad Act of Connecticut, which is said to have been a model of its kind. He served in the National legislature, having been elected to the thirty-fifth Congress, where he was chairman of the Committee on Manufactures. His term expired in 1859, and shortly thereafter President Buchanan appointed him Commissioner of Patents. Because he was only 31 years of age, a journal taking a great interest in patent affairs made the following comment:

"It might at first appear somewhat presumptuous on the part of the President to select so young a man for so important a trust but . . . we believe he will address himself to the duties of his new post with a zeal and discretion worthy of an old head."

In an issue after his resignation, this journal noted the fact that its expectations had been fulfilled.

It is said that Mr. Bishop's chief contribution to the Patent Office was the systematizing of its work. At that time the Board of Examiners-in-Chief had not been created; that was effected by the Patent Act of 1861, but there was an unofficial advisory board of three Principal Examiners appointed by the Commissioner which heard appeals from the decisions of the Examiners and reported to the Commissioner, who had the final decision on their findings. It is interesting to note that the conclusions of the Board were usually approved. Interference cases were treated in like manner except that in some instances they were considered directly by the Commissioner. Extensions of patents were usually taken up originally by the Commissioner.

More and more work continued to come into the office; and in his report for the year 1859 Commissioner Bishop complained:

"The business of the Patent Office is rapidly increasing from year to year, as is evidenced by the fact that the number of applications for patents during the year 1859 was nearly sixty per cent more than during the year 1855. Notwithstanding this, the number of Principal and first-assistant examiners remains the same."

Mr. Bishop's most important recommendation to Congress was that authority be given to the Patent Office to compel the attendance of witnesses in interference cases. The present method of effecting this was prescribed by the Patent Act of 1861. An important recommendation was the one regarding registration of copyrights; Commissioner Bishop recommended that applications should be made to the Patent Office instead of to the Clerks of the United States District Courts, as was then the law. The amendments to the patent law recommended to Congress by Mr. Bishop and his immediate predecessors were for the most part embodied in the Patent Act of 1861 which remained in force until the Act of 1870.

Commissioner Bishop disregarded the wishes of Congress during his administration; but it is interesting to note that this was followed by no serious consequences to him. Congress had limited the size of the annual report to 800 pages. This limitation was found to be impossible; so an extra thousand were published, making a total of 1800 pages!

In his later life, Mr. Bishop often referred to his term as Commissioner as one of the most interesting periods of his life. His continued interest in patent work was due to the fact that he was one of the founders of the Eastern Railroad Association, organized for the purpose of centralizing the source of legal advice on patent matters concerning member railroad companies. He served as a member of the executive committee and as president, holding the latter office from 1884 until his death, twenty years later.

A typical New Englander—conservative, quiet, unostentatious, yet genial withal and having a keen sense of humor—he was a man who left his mark on affairs, both local and national; and at his death in 1904, he was truly mourned as an "eminent and most worthy citizen."


*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.