When Blodgett’s Hotel caught fire on a mid-December morning in 1836, the firehouse on the same block was ill prepared to extinguish it. Although it housed a pump engine with 1,000 feet of riveted leather hose, the volunteer firefighters had long disbanded, and the company’s hose had disintegrated to the point of uselessness. The Washington, D.C. bystanders helped form a bucket brigade, but flames were already spewing from the first-floor windows by the time backup engines arrived.
By the time the fire was doused, every sheet of paper and 3-dimensional model lie in ruins. Every American patent ever issued, together with the models kept in the garret, were gone. The temporary housing facility, intended to protect the patents until a fire-resistant building could be erected, had failed to safeguard the country’s earliest patents of invention.
Upwards of 9,000 original drawings, 7,000 3-D models, and 168 folio volumes of records were among the casualties, which included national treasures such as Oliver Evans’ automated flour-mill patent (issued in 1790) and Robert Fulton’s original bound folio of full-color steamboat drawings, rendered in his own hand.
Recovery of what came to be called the “X patents” proved to be a messy undertaking with bits and pieces showing up (or not) over time. Of the nearly 10,000 patents issued prior to the fire, fewer than 3,000 have since been restored. Among the “survivors” are about 100 patents directly related to mills — including millstone carving, water wheel design, mill dams, and the construction of grist, tide, saw, wind, and cider mills. What remain missing, however, are more than 500 additional patents related to early American mills. Practical patents for millwrights such as the “saw set for mills” (patented 1832), the “framework of mills” (patented 1834), and the “wheelwright labor sav’g machine (patented in 1810) simply vanished for good in the great smoke billows rising up over Blogett’s.