As an independent nation with its own government and laws, the Confederate States of America soon acquired much of the bureaucracy of modern governments, including a Post Office, Mint, (by taking over former US Mints) and Patent Office. Rufus Rhodes, a former official of the United States Patent Office from Mississippi, served as the only Commissioner of the Confederate Patent Office. During its first year in existence – 1861 – the office issued 57 patents, in contrast with the over three thousand issued by the US Patent Office.
Over a third of the patents issued during the first year were for improvements to firearms or other weapons of war, although other patents for farm implements, a steam driven plow, textile machines, and other inventions were issued. The patent office suffered from a lack of working space (it was located on the third floor of the Mechanic’s Institute in Richmond) and reference materials, as well as a budget which precluded the acquisition of books and technical literature essential to its work.
Over the course of its existence the Confederate Patent Office would issue 266 patents. The design and manufacture of the armor plate which covered the former USS Merrimack leading to its becoming the CSS Virginia was patented by its designer, and contested by its builder. Both were awarded patents for their work on the ship.
Review of the surviving records of the Confederate Patent Office reveals how some of the privations of war affected the South as the war went on. By 1863, shortages of leather led to the application of no fewer than four patents for wooden soled shoes.
The Confederate Patent Office issued one of the first patents which was developed around submarine technology, for the CSS H L Hunley. The prevalence of the Union blockade led to numerous patents being applied for based on new methods of destroying Union ships, including mines, electric torpedoes, and delayed fuses. The Confederate Patent Office and its records were officially destroyed after the fall of Richmond, but further research into many of the innovations found there continued under the auspices of the US Navy after the war.