Saturday, July 31, 2021

U.S. Patent No. 1—Humdrum Need the Mother of Invention

Samuel Hopkin's patent with the original signatures.  The date and number in the top right of the page were added after the Patent Act of 1836.

On July 31, 1790 President George Washington affixed his signature to a document granting the first United States Patent.  It was the culmination of a process that began when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, himself an inventor with more than a passing interest in innovation, carefully reviewed the application.  When he concluded that the submission was both original and useful he signed the document and passed it on to Secretary of War Henry Knox who also approved it and then sent it to Attorney General Edmund Randolph.  Only when the last was finished with it did it land on Washington’s desk.

It was a cumbersome procedure entailing most of the Executive Branch of the still new Federal Government.  It was an improvisation by Jefferson who for some reason left out his rival for Washington’s favor, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton despite the New Yorker’s avowed interest in encouraging American industry.  Chances are very good that the snub was not accidental.

President George Washington and his Cabinet--Secretary of War Henry Knox, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.  All but Hamilton were involved in the review of the first patent.

Jefferson had to ad lib a review process because when Congress authorized the government to issue patents it neglected to say how it should be done.  The act simply authorized the government to carry out the powers described in Article 1. Section 8 of the Constitution:

Congress shall have the promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

The first person to take advantage of the new law was Samuel Hopkins, a Philadelphia inventor who petitioned for a patent on an improvement “in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process.”  As inventions go, it was pretty mundane, but potash, which was derived from the ash residue of vegetable matter, usually wood, and was used in the making of soap and candles.   Both of those necessities had usually been made at home in the Colonial Era.  Hopkins hoped his process would encourage their manufacture in small scale craft shops for local sale.  So it perfectly fit Jefferson’s key criterion—usefulness.

Samuel Hopkins was granted the first Patent for his new process of making potash. 

Hopkins was so excited about the prospects for his process that the very next year he was also granted the first patent from the Parliament of Lower Canada in 1791, and issued by the Governor General in Council Angus MacDonnel at Quebec City.

The approval process was repeated two more times that year for a new candle-making process and Oliver Evans’s flour-milling machinery.  The following year the trickle of applications became a rushing steam as innovative and ambitious dreamers submitted their ideas for a $4 fee—a cost that although not insignificant could be raised by most.   Whatever his own interest in examining the models and drawings, the work load was overwhelming the Cabinet and the President’s attention.

Jefferson substantially streamlined the process.  He handed over initial review to a State Department Clerk who would make a recommendation which he would approve and send on to the President for a final signature.  In practice the final two steps began to simply rubber stamp the Clerk’s determination.

This process continued into Jefferson’s own Presidency.   At his urging Congress created Patent Office with its own staff of clerks.  More than 10,000 patents were issued before 1836 when a fire destroyed all of the records.  That fire spurred Congress to enact the Patent Act of 1836 which authorized the hiring of professional patent examiners in addition to the clerks.  It also authorized new patent documents to be issued in all cases where the patent could be confirmed by other records such as copies held by the recipient.  2,845 patents were restored and issued a number beginning with an X.  That included Hopkins’ first patent.  The rest of the missing patents were voided.

To date there are more than five million patents that have been issued to Americans and other nationals by the U.S. Patent system.  Since 1975 patents have been granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a part of the Department of Commerce.

By the way a copy of Hopkins’ patent with the original signatures still exists and is held by the Chicago Historical Society.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Black Troops Slaughtered in the First SNAFU—The Battle of the Crater

This Battle of the Crater souvenir post card was sold for decades around the Virginia battle field.  For all I know glossy print versions may still be available.  Like many depictions of the battle it show a valiant Confederate charge into the Yanks trapped in the crater.  It also minimizes the number of Black troops--only two are identifiable in this picture--despite the fact that they suffered virtual annihilation.  How history gets both the valient Lost Cause veneer and is white washed.

File this one in the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley department.  The plan was brilliant.  Its execution nearly perfect down to the last detail.  The result exactly as desired, until mere mortal men marched into the breach.

By the summer of 1864 the grim carnage of the American Civil War had ground to a stalemate.  Since Gettysburg a year earlier Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his legendary Army of Northern Virginia had been hard pressed by vastly superior Union forces of the Army of the Potomac under the direct command of Major General George Meade directly and personally supervised by Commanding General Ulysses S Grant. 

Once famous for his audacious and aggressive maneuvers, Lee was forced to defend the Confederate capitol of Richmond.  He erected impressive earthen work fortifications in a wide ring around the city.  The old man was proving to be just as adept at what would be the future in the Industrial Agetrench warfare.

Lee dug in to defend his capitol. A war of maneuver settled into siege, stalemate, and trench warfare.  The breastworks of the Confederate Fort Mahone on the Petersburg line.

The key to Richmond was at the rail hub of Petersburg through which the city and the army could remain supplied with food, supplies, and munitions.  Grant called it the “backdoor to Richmond” and proceeded to lay siege to the city and its fortifications.

The armies faced each other along a 20 mile front from the old Cold Harbor battlefield near Richmond to areas south of Petersburg.  An attempt to take the town by assault ended in failure on June 15.  Since then, the two armies had pounded each other with artillery, peppered the opposing lines with deadly fire from sharpshooters and snipers, and delicately probed each other’s lines with reconnaissance patrols.  Both commanding generals were frustrated.

Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry had an idea and commanded the perfect troops to make it happen. 

It took a mining engineer to come up with a solution to Grant’s problem—Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps.  His proposal was simple on paper—dig a long mineshaft from the Union siege trenches then under Confederate outer defenses until under the major fortification at the center of the Rebel lines, Elliott’s Salient.  Sappers would then plant and set off a huge mine which would blow the fort away and open a breach through which Union forces could pour, smashing the Confederate I Corps and rolling up Petersburg before Lee could muster his forces from elsewhere along the lines.

Burnside was a once promising commander nursing a badly bruised reputation.  His indecision as Army of the Potomac commander at Fredericksburg in December of 1862 had thrown away the best chance for a quick end to the war and led to one of the bloodiest defeats the Army was ever handed.  Busted back to a Corps commander, his lack of aggressiveness at Spotsylvania Court House earlier that year had aggravated Grant.  Burnside was determined to prove that he was imaginative and aggressive.  He quickly gave the go-ahead to Pleasant’s plan.  Up the chain of command Meade and Grant also signed off on it but were not much convinced it would work.  Neither lent much logistical support to the effort.

A successful and proven Division commander, Major General Ambrose Burnside had been elevated to quickly to command of the Army of the Potomac after Lincoln finally got fed up with George McClellan.  His indecision at Fredericksburg led to one of the Army's worst defeats.  Demoted to a Corps commander, he was blamed for over caution at Spotsylvania Court House.  Now he was an officer desperate to salvage his reputation.

Pleasants’ own troops, tough coal miners from the fields of western Pennsylvania, were just the men for the job.  They were maybe the only men in the Union army who would not consider the task drudgery.  In fact, for them digging in the soft Virginia soil must have seemed like a cakewalk.

Digging began in June and proceeded quickly.  The men had to scrounge lumber to shore up the tunnel and for the ingenious ventilation system which sucked fresh air from the narrow mine entrance all the way to the face of the digging via a wooden ductFetid air at the end was heated by a constantly burning pit fire and vented out drawing the fresh air to fill the vacuum.  This system avoided the use of multiple air vents which could have been observed.

The miners dug by hand and removed the soil in wooden soap and ammunition boxes drawn by rope along a crude wooden plank rail. On July 17 the shaft reached under Elliott’s Salient at a depth of about fifty feet.  A perpendicular gallery about 75 feet long extended in both directions.

All of this had been accomplished un-detected by the enemy.  Confederate intelligence reported rumors of the mine to Lee about two weeks after construction began.  He didn’t believe it.  Finally, after receiving new report, he began desultory anti-mine efforts which failed to find or detect the shaft.

Confederate General John Pegram in charge of the artillery in the sector took the rumors more seriously, however, and on his own authority as a precaution had trenches and gun emplacements built to the rear of the Salient as a secondary line of defense.

Meade and Grant finally decided to go all in on the plan.  The gallery underneath the Confederate position was filled with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder in 320 kegs.  The main chamber was extended to 20 feet below the fort and was packed shut with 11 feet of earth in the side galleries and 32 feet of packed earth in the main gallery to prevent the explosion blasting out the mouth of the mine.

The miners' handiwork--the Union tunnel with the point of detonation of tons of explosive under the Confederate strong point.

On July 27 Grant sent Major Generals Winfield Scott Hancock and Phil Sheridan on a combined infantry/cavalry attack along the James River southwest of Richmond and miles from the Petersburg front.  In what became known as the First Battle of Deep Bottom or New Market Road the forces were repelled in two sharp days of skirmishing around Fussell’s Mill and Bailey’s Creek.  Although Grant held out some hope that Hancock’s infantry could punch a hole in the defenses to allow Sheridan’s cavalry to pour into Richmond or failing that ride around the city severing rail connections, he was not entirely disappointed when the attacks were repulsed.   They had succeeded in causing Lee to send troops from Petersburg to re-enforce the line along the James.

Grant turned his personal attention to the well-developed plans for the Petersburg mine attack. 

Weeks earlier at an officer’s call Burnside had acceded to the plea of former New York City dance master Brigadier General Edward Ferrero to use his division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) as the leading assault unit.  Burnside, who originally had other plans, agreed.  The division was fresh, well equipped, and most importantly at full strength, 4,200 men—a rarity when veteran units were often whittled away to half their original size or less through combat loss, disease, and desertion.  The division was given a rarity for the Civil Wartwo full weeks of specialized training and instructions for this mission.  After the mine went off, they were to move ahead in the confusion of the enemy and secure the crest of the crater on either side to allow the rest of the Corps to pass along the rim or through the crater itself. 

When Meade reviewed the plans, he fretted that the unit which Burnside considered fresh was simply green and therefore unreliable in combat, especially in a critical role.  He also worried that if the Colored Troops failed, they would discourage commanders from accepting and fighting alongside of others.  Although Colored Troops had proved themselves in other theaters, they were new to the elite Army of the Potomac.  Grant agreed and ordered Burnside to revise the order of battle less than 24 hours before the attack.

At another officer’s call Burnside conducted a lottery among his three white divisions to select a lead.  Brigadier General James F. Ledlie of the 1st Division won the draw.  The Colored Division would join the two others in the second wave of the attack.

Ledlie returned to his unit but never issued the special instructions for taking the flanking rim first.  The men were told only that they would have the honor of leading a full frontal assault.

Brevet Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, a famed New York dancing master in civilian life and a veteran of several campaigns, commanded the division of U.S. Colored Troops at Petersburg.  He and his men were tapped to lead the assault after the mine blew up and underwent two weeks of special training.  At the last minute they were replaced in the order of battle by a white division for political reasons.

Meanwhile Col. Pleasants was deep underground personally supervising the final placement of the explosives and making sure the earthen plugs in the tunnel were strong.

The mine was supposed to be detonated at 3:30 in the morning of June 30.  But the Army had provided inferior fuses.  Two attempts to light it failed.  Finally, two volunteers crawled into the mine, found where the fuse had burned out had broken, and spliced a fresh fuse on the end.  It was after dawn when the mine finally blew up at 4:30, with enough light for Confederate pickets to recognize that there were large Union forces inside their lines.

The explosion itself went off flawlessly.  And impressively.  The fortifications of Elliott’s Salient were blown sky high killing most of the garrison.  Despite a little warning, the Confederate line was thrown into the anticipated confusion and panic.

Ledlie’s men at first seemed as stunned by the spectacle as the enemy.  They paused to take in the scene and had to be prodded forward by their officers and sergeants.  Ledlie himself was nowhere to be found.  He was well to the rear, completely out of line of sight of the battle in a bombproof bunker with Ferrero of the Colored Division.  Passing a bottle between them the two officers were getting quietly drunk.

The untrained and leaderless men of the 1st Division charged into the crater  instead of taking the rim as planned.  They were trapped.  The Turkey shoot commenced.

When the 1st Division reached the crater instead of securing the rim, they charged directly into it.  And at the bottom they stopped to gape at the destruction.  The delays allowed time for Brig. Gen. William Mahone to cobble together a Confederate force to rush to plug the breechRebs quickly occupied the vacant rim and commenced a turkey shoot of the defenseless men in the crater.  Troops madly tried to scramble up the sides, but found the dirt gave way under them.  They were trapped.

But they were not to be alone.  Burnside, refusing to be charged once again with indecision and lack of aggression, ordered the Colored Division forward to reinforce the trapped 1st.  Denied the rim, they followed into the crater.  Their appearance enraged the Confederates who intensified fire, including round after round of intense artillery fire.

Burnside ordered the Colored Division forward to reinforce the 1st.  They also pushed into the Crater and were trapped.  They were singled out by enraged Confederates and were nearly annihilated.  No prisoners were taken from them.  The wounded were shot or bayoneted. Only a handful escaped, mostly men who did not enter the crater.

The turkey shoot continued for more than two hours.  At one point some supporting troops did manage to flank the crater and advance inside the Confederate line taking trenches in brutal hand-to-hand combat. But there were not enough of them and could not be reinforced.  After holding out for a short while they were cleaned out of the trenches by a counterattack.

As the battle wound down, Confederate troops summarily executed Black soldiers trying to surrenderFearing retaliation by the Rebels, some White Union troops bayonetted the Blacks as well.  The Colored Division was virtually wiped out as an effective unit.

In all Union forces suffered 3,798 casualties including 504 killed, 1,881 wounded, and 1,413 missing or captured.  The Confederates lost 1,491—361 killed, 727 wounded, and 403 missing or captured.

The Crater after the battle.

Probably the best chance of the year at an early end to the war was thrown away.  Grant reported to Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war…Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”

The finger pointing and blaming began immediately.  A Court of Inquiry pinned the rap on Burnside, who was relieved of command and never entrusted with another.  His reputation was ruined beyond repair.  All of his division commanders were censured, especially Ledlie and Ferrero.

One of the few to come out of the affair with an enhanced reputation was Pleasants, whose troops were not engaged in the actual fighting that day.  He was rewarded for his plan and execution with a brevet to Brigadier General.

At war’s end in 1865 the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War opened an inquiry into the debacle.  Pleasants testified that if Burnside had been allowed to retain his original order of Battle, that the operation would have been a success.  Grant concurred.  He wrote to the Commission:

General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.

In the end, the commission agreed, laying the blame at Meade’s feet and exonerating Burnside.  Little good did that do for the general’s already destroyed reputation.

On the Confederate side Mahone was hailed a hero and became one of Lee’s most trusted division commanders in the last year of the war.

Far from the battle site where they were slaughtered the 28th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops are commemorated by a marker in Indianapolis, the city where the regiment was raised.

The Siege of Petersburg ground on for months more into a new year.  Union successes elsewhere, especially William Tecumseh Sherman’s operations in the Deep South, were sealing the fate of the Confederacy.  After Grant’s bloody Wilderness Campaign offensive, Lee was finally forced out of his trenches.  Richmond fell.  Lee surrendered.  The South was defeated.

But had the operation at the Crater gone as planned, maybe a million lives might have been saved. 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Man Who Remembered—Booth Tarkington

                            Booth Tarkington as a young writer.

Booth Tarkington, the American novelist and dramatist, was born on July 29, 1869 into a comfortable, upper middle class family in Indianapolis, Indiana.  His long and very productive career was marked by his close examination of those 19th Century Mid-Western roots in the humorous, nostalgic vein of his popular Penrod novels and Seventeen, as well as more serious depictions as in The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. 

At first educated in Indianapolis schools, his socially ambitious family had him transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy, the fashionable eastern boarding school that was a conduit to the Ivy League.  But his family lost some of their wealth in the Panic of 1879, and young Booth was sent instead to Indiana’s own Purdue University.  A gifted enough student not to have to work hard for decent grades, he was popular on campus and enjoyed his two years there. 

With improving fortunes, he was sent to Princeton to finish his education.  There he joined a theatrical group where he excelled as an actor and first turned his hand as a playwright.  He became one of the charter members when the drama club was re-formed as The Triangle Club, which continues to this day producing original work by students.  He also belonged to the Ivy Club, the oldest and most prestigious of Princeton’s dining clubs and edited the Nassau Literary Magazine. 

Voted the most popular student of the class of 1893, Tarkington failed to graduate, missing credit in one class.  However, he kept close ties to both of his colleges and made significant gifts to each when he became a wealthy and successful writer.  A residence hall at Purdue was named for him after he underwrote its construction and both schools awarded him honorary degrees.  In fact, he was the only person ever to receive two honorary degrees from Princeton, a measure of his literary prestige in the first quarter of the 20th Century. 

Two film adaptations were made from Tarkington's first novel and successful play adaptations Monsieur Beaucaire in 1924 with reigning superstar Rudolph Valentino and 22 years later with Bob Hope--both were comedies but the Hope vehicle was less heroic.  The original was the film lampooned in the classic MGM musical Singing in the Rain.                                                          

Upon leaving school, Tarkington was able to undertake the traditional grand tour of Europe and spent time in such upper-class enclaves as Kennebunkport, Maine between extended stays in Indianapolis.  He began successfully writing short stories for popular magazines.  In 1900 he had success with his second book, Monsieur Beaucaire.  Uncharacteristic of most of his work the slender novel was a comic historical romance set in 18th Century England.  It’s themes of social class and caste, however, would be reflected in more American scenes.  The book went on to be a successful play, was made into an operetta, and was twice filmed, in 1924 with Rudolph Valentino and 1946 with Bob Hope. 

Tarkington married in 1902 and set up primary residence in Indianapolis. The marriage, which produced one daughter, ended in divorce in 1911 and Tarkington married Susanah Keifer Robinson the following year.  In 1902, the year of his first marriage, Tarkington was elected to a single term as a Republican in the Indiana legislature, which gave him fodder for his book In the Arena: Stories of Political Life published in 1905. 

Tarkington was soon publishing nearly a book a year in addition to a volume of poetry and plays, including adaptations of his books.  Later he would also do screenplays from his work. 

Orson Welles's adaptation of The Magnificent Amerbersons with Joseph Cotten, Anne Baxter, Tim Hold and Agnes Moorehead is considered a masterpiece despite RKO taking the final cut from the boy genius and altering the ending.  

Penrod, the first of a series of books about the adventures of a small town boy of comfortable circumstances, began as magazine stories and was published in 1914 and was widely popular.  The next year Tarkington finished The Turmoil, the first book of the Growth trilogy about the fall of an old wealth family and the rise of the industrial new rich.  The second book of that series, The Magnificent Ambersons was published in 1918 and is considered by most critics as him most important work.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919.  Orson Wells famously made it into a classic film in 1941. 

This 1948 paperback edition of Seventeen is the one I found on my mother's bookshelves and stuffed into my back jeans pocket to read in the boughs of a willow over a Cheyenne pond one summer long ago.

In between, in 1916 came Seventeen, a much beloved, painfully comic tale of a young man’s unrequited love.  It is still an entertaining and enjoyable read.  In 1922 Tarkington won a second Pulitzer Prize for Alice Adams, his tale of a vivacious small town girl of modest means who plots to snag the handsome son of the town’s leading wealthy family.  It, too, was twice made into a film adapted for the screen most famously in 1935 by my distant kinswoman Jane Murfin for Katherine Hepburn. 

Presenting Lily Mars, published in 1933 told the story of a stage struck young woman and incorporated themes from Tarkington’s lifelong interest in the theater.  It was made into a MGM musical staring Judy Garland in 1943.

Tarkington in the 1920s.  His eyesight was already failing.  Soon he would keep up a prodigious output by dictation as he tried to come to grips with the changes around him that were erasing the innocent 19th Century small town life he treasured.

In the early ‘20’s Tarkington began to lose his sight and was blind by mid-decade.  He continued to produce a steady stream of novels, plays, and non-fiction by dictation up to his death in 1946. 

In all nine of his novels were top best sellers and several of his stage plays long running hits.  His reputation as a novelist has been eclipsed by harder edged work by later American writers.  Seventeen remains perennially in print as a juvenile favorite, but Tarkington is now best remembered for the films made of his work.