Charles Grafton Page - Controversy and Impact From Politics, War, and Patents

Controversy and Impact From Politics, War, and Patents

As with the challenge to spiritualism described above, Page's scientific undertakings brought him into public arenas where politics and controversy held sway. Eloquent, combative, keen-minded and persistent, Page made his commitments known. Increasingly, Page's self-chosen and sometimes self-serving commitments diverged from the norms of behavior sanctioned by society and the elitism of the emerging professionalist trend in science. The resulting tarnish to Page's reputation impacted him during his lifetime and contributed to the longstanding historical neglect of his scientific work and personal story, thereby reducing general understanding of the complexity of the American experience in science.

A tension early to arise in his career as patent examiner was that of the conflict of interest between the privileged information he had regarding applicants' patents, and his private consulting with particular inventors on the side. Following his appearance in the 1848 Morse v O'Reilly lawsuit over the telegraph, Page took a more careful stance in his role as patent examiner. Thereafter, he refrained from transmitting such privileged information to rival patent applicants.

However, the well-paid public post of patent examiner put the occupants continually under scrutiny by politicians, scientists, and aspiring inventors. Both Congress and the executive branch exerted control and influence over policy and practices in the patent office.

In the early years of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a patent examiner was expected to be highly trained, knowledgeable in all the sciences, informed on current and past technology. Page was an exemplar of this ideal.

As Page continued in the job, the number of patents submitted to the agency increased sharply, while the number of patents granted was the same or less, and the number of patent examiners was unchanged. Inventors seeking patents, becoming incensed about decisions made against them, coalesced into a lobby with a voice projected through the journal Scientific American. This lobby advocated "liberalization" — more leniency in the granting of patents, giving the inventor the "benefit of the doubt"— and argued against the scientific research being sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution under Joseph Henry.

Henry took a hard line, decrying inventors' "futile attempts to innovate and improve". The elite professionalized science that Henry was building up through the Smithsonian and other organizations treated as low status the having or seeking of a patent; patents were not considered a contribution to science. While Page set out to show that gaining patents was genuine scientific work, he fell out of favor with the scientific establishment. His friendship with Henry petered out, and Page was no longer held in high regard as part of elite science.

Page shifted in his position on the granting of patents. As an examiner of patents, he was scrupulous and fair. Through his own experience as an inventor and association with other inventors, he allied with their concerns. On his resignation from the patent agency, Page used the journal he founded and edited as a forum to critique and even lambast the agency and policies which he had upheld for 10 years prior.

Having had much to do with shaping policy from inside the (patent) office, he also played a crucial role in reshaping it from the outside(Post, 1976a, p. 151).

Following the example of Samuel Morse, who developed the telegraph to commercial viability through assistance from federal government funds, Page sought a similar level of support for his electromagnetically powered locomotive. He found a political ally in Thomas Hart Benton, senator from Missouri. Benton's passionate rhetoric on behalf of Page's vision was instrumental in securing unanimous support for a Senate allocation of $20,000 to fund Page's project through the Department of Navy. By the end of that year (1849), Page reported to the Navy that he was collaborating on the project with a mechanic, Ari Davis, the brother of Daniel Davis Jr., but had nothing yet to show. In print, inventor Thomas Davenport (inventor) challenged the expenditure of public funds on Page's project, claiming that motors he had already invented and built were equal to the task. Page defused that objection by publishing a statement about his unique device.

More troubles ensued for the project. Running low on cash, Page asked for more. Speaking in the Senate in the summer of 1850, Benton presented Page's attainment of a force an order of magnitude greater than what the same battery had output under his initial trials. Benton upped the stakes by requesting funds for Page to develop an electromagnetically powered ship of war. This second petition met with serious opposition in the Senate. Senator Henry Stuart Foote countered that Page had not proved substantial progress or benefits from his work. Senator Jefferson Finis Davis objected to the appropriation of government funds to one inventor, while other inventors such as Thomas Davenport went unsupported. Both the US Senate and House nixed any further funds for Page's project. In order to prepare the locomotive for its 1851 trial run, Page went over $6000 into debt. In the wake of the failed public test of this locomotive, Page faced a critical press. Gaining no assistance from the world of finance, he emerged from the debacle in "desperate straights, financially and emotionally".

The American Civil War wreaked a further devastating impact on Page's scientific work and legacy. In 1863, Union soldiers stationed in the area of Page's home, broke into his laboratory as a random, unprovoked act of violence. His equipment, inventions and laboratory notebooks were destroyed. Some other inventions by Page which he had donated to the Smithsonian Institution were destroyed by a fire there in 1865. As a result of these destructive events, very few of Page's handmade devices exist today. With little remaining of his experimental work and notes, Page's many contributions have slipped from the view of most historians.

Suffering debt, terminal illness and isolation from the mainstream scientific community by his last years, Page contrived one final effort to secure credit and status for his achievements. In 1867, he petitioned the United States Congress for a retrospective patent on his inventions of the late 1830s: the spiral conductor, the circuit breakers, the double helical coil. The granting of such a patent transgressed such policies as that an invention in widespread public use for decades can not be patented, and that an employee of the Patent office can not hold a patent. Page circumvented these policies by appealing to nationalism. To support his argument, he published anonymously a lengthy, closely researched yet self-promoting book titled The American Claim to the Induction Coil and its electrostatic Developments(1867b).

By the 1860s, the induction coil was becoming a prominent instrument of physics research. Instrument-makers in America, Great Britain and the European continent contributed in developing the construction and operation of induction coils. Premiere among these instrument makers was Heinrich Daniel Ruhmkorff, who in 1864 received from Emperor Napoleon III the prestigious Volta Prize along with a 50,000 franc award for his 'invention' of the induction coil. Page maintained that the devices he developed in the 1830s were not markedly different from the induction coil and that other American inventors had filled in with improvements that were better than anything made by Ruhmkorff — and alleging that Ruhmkorff had plagiarized the coil of another American instrument-maker, Edward Samuel Ritchie.

A special act passed by the U.S. House and Senate, and signed by President Andrew Johnson authorized what was later dubbed "The Page Patent". Page died a few weeks later, in May 1868. Instead of dying with him, the Page patent went on to play a major role in the politics and economics of the telegraph industry. Page's lawyer and heirs successfully argued that the patent covered the mechanisms involved in "all known forms of telegraphy". An interest in the patent was sold to the Western Union Co; together Western Union and the Page heirs reaped lucrative benefits. Page's patent secured a life 'in style' for his widow and heirs. Although he was no longer living, it figured as yet another violation, on his part, of the behavior code under the emerging professionalization of science of the day, under which science was to be conducted for its own sake, without accruing apparent political or financial gain.

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