The U.S. Patent Office opened for business in July, 1790. Each inventor submitted his or her original invention in order to obtain the protection of a patent. Once approved, each patent was signed by George Washington, then later by Thomas Jefferson and still later by others. The system worked well for a few years, but officials soon realized they needed a safer method of storing the records. The building that housed the Patent Office was fire-prone, even though it was next door to one of Washington’s first fire stations.
In 1836 construction of a new, fire-resistant building for the Patent Office was begun. However, it proved to be too late. In December of 1836, before the new building could be completed, the first building that still housed all the patents caught fire. It was a cold December morning. The firemen rushed the equipment into the street to fight the blaze but found their leather hoses were soon frozen solid. Attempting to bend the hoses only broke them. In addition, a critical water pump ceased working in the cold temperatures. The building burned to the ground, destroying every patent ever issued by the U.S. government to that date.
To be sure, a few patents were able to be recovered since copies had been sent back to the inventors. However, most patents were lost forever.
This spring two lawyers with a passion for patent history uncovered a clue to several important patents from the 1790's - including one from 1826 for the first internal combustion engine. Following the trail to Dartmouth College, they discovered inventor copies of 14 patents that had been written off as lost forever. Since then, the lawyers have obtained clues about even more copies of early patents held in other college archives.
You can read more about their discoveries at http://tinyurl.com/4j2c3.