William Thornton


William Thornton, the first and longest serving head of the office, was born on May 20, 1759, in the British Virgin Islands. He was sent to England at the age of five for education. His many interests included architecture, painting, botany, and mechanics. He received a medical degree from the University of Aberdeen and practiced briefly as a physician. 

He travelled widely in Europe and met Benjamin Franklin in Paris. In 1785 he returned to the family sugar plantation on the island of Tortola. The next year he moved to Philadelphia, which was an early seat of the U.S. government, and became a U.S. citizen.

Although he had no formal training in architecture, in 1793 he submitted drawings in a competition for the design of the proposed U.S. Capitol building. President George Washington, after consulting with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, approved Thornton’s design. Thornton also designed other Washington, D.C., landmarks including the Octagon House and Tudor Place.

In 1794 Thornton accepted Jefferson’s offer to be one of the three Commissioners for the District of Columbia and moved to Washington to supervise government construction in the new capital. Thornton’s first home was in the more affluent city of Georgetown, then separate from Washington. When the commissioners were pressured to live in Washington, he and his wife moved to 1331 F Street, NW, in Washington. His next door neighbors were James and Dolley Madison. Thornton also purchased a farm in Bethesda, Maryland, where he kept race horses.

At one point Thornton took responsibility for the Capitol building project, but it was not completed by 1800 when the government moved to Washington. In 1802 the Board of Commissioners for the District of Columbia ceased to exist, and Thornton was offered a position in charge of patents in the State Department. He assumed his position on June 1, 1802. It was the first time an official had been appointed the full-time job of granting patents. For that reason it is often considered the birth date of the Patent Office. The title “Superintendent” was recognized by statute later. Thornton was not able to hire his first assistant until 1810.

In 1810 Congress authorized the purchase of a building known as Blodgett’s Hotel to house the Patent Office and the General Post Office. Blodgett’s was located on the north side of E Street, NW, between what would become 7th and 8th Streets. It was the first time the Patent Office had a home of its own. Much later the site was occupied by a larger building that housed the U.S. International Trade Commission. The government later sold that building and it became the Monaco Hotel.

During the War of 1812 Thornton pleaded with invading British soldiers who burned nearly all government buildings in Washington not to burn Blodgett’s Hotel. According to Thornton, he told the British that anyone who burned the patent models would be condemned by future generations. The hotel was spared.

Thornton’s administration of the Patent Office was tumultuous, operating under the Patent Act of 1793 that provided no examination of the merits of inventions. He thought patent applications should be examined. He attempted to discourage applicants if he thought their inventions were already known or copied from earlier inventions. 

He granted patents to himself and named himself as a co-inventor with others. He had a bitter dispute with steamboat inventor Robert Fulton that presented a conflict of interest for Thornton because of his association with inventor John Fitch. 

Thornton developed a patent reissue practice that was upheld by the courts and still exists today. His view that patents should be kept secret until they expired was eventually overruled.

The number of patents issued per year quadrupled during his tenure. He continually asked for more money for the office, usually without success. He complained about his meager salary, which led to financial hardships for the once wealthy man.

Still the Superintendent after 26 years, Thornton died on March 28, 1828, at age 68. He was buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery.



Kenneth W. Dobyns, The Patent Office Pony – A History of the Early Patent Office (2d ed. Docent Press 2016), pp. 107-111.

George E. Hutchinson & Herbert H. Mintz, William Thornton, Founder of Washington, D.C., Architect of the U.S. Capitol Building, and Superintendent of the Early U.S. Patent Office, 5 Journal of the Federal Circuit Historical Society 45 (2011).

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).