Since its inception, the Patent Office has been through five buildings and two fires before coming to its newest residence in Alexandria, Virginia. When the United States began granting patents in 1790, patents were one of many affairs handled by the Department of State. The patent department expanded rapidly as more and more patents were filed, soon outgrowing the space the State Department headquarters could provide. In 1810, a building known as “Blodgett’s Hotel,” was purchased for the Patent Office and the general post office to share. When the British burned Washington during the War of 1812, Blodgett’s was the only building untouched. The number of patents filed continued to multiply, and even after an expansion of Blodgett’s in 1829, the Patent Office needed more space than the building would provide.
Consequently, it was decided in 1836 that a more spacious building for the Patent Office would be built and construction began. Oddly enough, before the new building was completed, a fire started by fireplace ashes destroyed the whole of Blodgett’s Hotel, including the patents and patent models it housed. (At one time, inventors were required to submit models of their inventions). In 1840 construction was completed on the first wing of the building, and the Patent Office began to move into what is now known as “The Old Patent Office Building”. By 1867 construction was finished, and at its completion the building filled two full blocks, making it the nation’s largest office building.
Fire struck the Patent Office again in 1877, decimating a large portion of the building. Fortunately, although the fire destroyed a great number of patents, the more important records were saved. The gutted wings were reconstructed, and the old patent building remained the home of the Patent Office until 1932.
When the Department of Commerce moved to the Commerce Building in 1932, the Patent Office moved as well and resided in the North end of the Commerce building, which was customized for the Patent Office and included a public search room. The Patent Office gradually outgrew its quarters again, and the lack of office space in combination with the absence of central heating and air prompted a search for a new building.
In 1967, the Patent Office settled on Crystal City, a commercial complex in Arlington, Virginia. For the first time the Patent Office was housed in leased office space. The Patent Office continued to grow, and expanded into several buildings in the complex.
Fast forward to 1989: the United States Patent and Trademark Office was running out of space again, and housing 7,000 employees in 18 buildings sprawled out over a one and a half mile area created a cumbersome workplace. The Patent Office began investigating ways to deal with the storage and office space issues. Finally, in 1995, the decision was reached that an entirely new facility was needed, and permission was granted to look for land and a builder for the new headquarters. Now, ten years later, the new headquarters is in the final stages of completion.
The final embodiment of the plan is a 20 year, $1.2 billion lease of a five building complex--the largest lease ever granted by the General Services Administration. Near the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, the custom built 2.3 million square foot headquarters is a more efficient workplace than the previous 18 offices scattered about Crystal City. The five buildings are arranged in a “U” shape with underground pedestrian tunnels connecting each of the buildings.
The majority of paper copies of patents housed in the patent library have not been moved to the new facility; 6.7 million patents--some of them dating back to 1790--have been converted from paper files to digital files. Even though the library of proposed and granted patents and trademarks is a gigantic store of information, contained on tons of paper, all of it can be contained in digital format on a few large capacity file servers, making the move of the library much easier than before possible.
All of these features can be accessed via a single location on a computer screen as opposed to the old system of using paper indexes and pulling files from multiple locations.
Examiners aren’t the only ones benefitting from the USPTO’s conversion to digital media; because digital files can be transferred over the internet, anyone can access scanned images of patents and trademarks from the USPTO’s website. In addition, to facilitate on-site searching, the new USPTO complex has a 300 computer library for those wishing to search patents and trademarks.
While the construction of the new office complex was itself quite an undertaking, it wasn’t the only significant hurdle to jump; as construction gradually progressed, the entire USPTO workforce and office equipment had to be relocated with minimal impact on patent and trademark processing. The move is a significant logistical challenge, and has been organized into phases. In December of 2003 the first phase began as divisions began to transfer to the new location. The move is expected to be complete this summer.