ROOT V. THIRD AVENUE R. CO., 146 U. S. 210 (1892)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Root v. Third Avenue R. Co., 146 U.S. 210 (1892)

Root v. Third Avenue Railroad Company

No. 39

Argued November 7, 1892

Decided November 21, 1892

146 U.S. 210


An inventor applied September 3, 1881, for letters patent for an "improvement in the construction of cable railways," the invention consisting in the employment of a connecting tie for the rails and supports for the slot irons by which both are rigidly supported from the tie and united to each other, the ties or frames being embedded in concrete, and the rails, the slot irons, and the tube being thus connected in the same structure. The invention was conceived in 1876 and used by the inventor in constructing a cable road which was put into use in April, 1878, and of which he was superintendent until after he applied for the patent, which was granted in August, 1882.

Held, on the facts:

(1) The use of the invention was not experimental.

(2) The inventor reserved no future control over it.

(3) He had no expectation of making any material changes in it, and never suggested or made a change after the structure went into use, and never made an examination with a view of seeing whether it was defective or could be improved.

(4) The use was such a public use as to defeat the patent.

(5) The case of Elizabeth v. Pavement Co., 97 U. S. 126, considered, and the present case held not to fall within its principles.

This is a suit in equity, brought July 12, 1886, in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York, by Henry Root against the Third Avenue Railroad

Page 146 U. S. 211

Company, founded on the alleged infringement of letters patent No. 262, 126, granted August 1, 1882, to the plaintiff, for an "improvement in the construction of cable railways" on an application filed September 3, 1881.

The specification of the patent says:

"My invention relates to cable railways, and it consists in the employment of a connecting tie for the rails and supports for the slot irons by which both are rigidly supported from the tie and united to each other. In combination with this construction, I employ a substratum of concrete or equivalent material which will set or solidify and unite the whole into a continuous rigid structure, no part of which is liable to be displaced from its relation to the other, and also provide a support for the roadway. Previous to my invention, all cable railways had been constructed of iron ribs of the form of the tube, set at suitable intervals, to which the slot iron or timber, as the case may be, was bolted, and the spaces between these ribs filled with wood, to form a continuous tube. Outside, and independent of this tube, the rails were laid, supported on short ties or other foundations, and were connected horizontally with the iron ribs by short bolts or rods, but were liable to settle by the undermining of their foundation, without regard to the tube or the other rail of the track. This would frequently occur by the renewal of the paving outside of the track, the introduction of house connections with the main sewer, or other disturbances of the street. This settling would cause great inconvenience, as the gripping apparatus, which is carried by the rail through the medium of the car or dummy, must travel in a fixed position in the tube, thus making a frequent adjustment of the rails to the tube necessary. The space between the rails and sides of the tube was filled with sand, which could not be securely confined, as the joints in the tube were liable to open by settling, so as to require a frequent relaying of the paving or planking, and making the whole insecure and expensive to maintain. In my invention, the whole forms a single, rigid structure."

The following are the drawings of the patent, Fig. 1 being a cross-section and Fig. 2 a perspective view:

Page 146 U. S. 212


The specification says:

"A is the main tie, bent so as to embrace the tube, and it has fastened to the ends suitable formed plates or chairs, B, to which the rails, G, are fastened, or, if stringers are used, they may be fastened directly to the

Page 146 U. S. 213

ties. The ties may be of various shapes, but in this case I have used old T-rail, turned bottom up, with but one curve or bend, as this requires but one heat, and is thus cheaper. C are upright supports for the slot irons, having one end secured to the tie at points each side of the bend, sufficiently separated to form the necessary width for the tube. D are tie-rods, connecting said supports with the main ties or frames, through the chairs, rails, or stringers, as the case may be. The rods, D, may be fixed or may be screw bolts, having two nuts at one end for the adjustment of the slot irons to or from each other during construction, or other equivalent means may be employed. E is the concrete, in which the ties or frames are imbedded at suitable distances to support the rails and slot irons, which form the top of the tube. This concrete forms a support for the ironwork, the bottom and sides of the tube, and a foundation for the paving, F, which fills the space between the rails and slot iron, thus forming an even and durable roadway, which cannot settle below the level of the rails or slot irons, or cause a side pressure on the tube, as is the case where the roadway is supported on sand or other independent foundation. As nearly all the weight of the traffic is on the rails, the tendency of the rails to go down is resisted by a deep girder, of which the bent tie forms the top and this continuous mass of concrete forms the bottom. I am aware that concrete, as a material for foundations, underground sewers, and conduits, has long been well known, and that concrete, brickwork, or ironstone pipe might be used to form the tube between the iron ribs of the well known construction without any particular invention, as these materials are as well known as wood; but it would be still subjected to all the danger of unequal settlement, and the short tie and stringer of wood require frequent renewal and adjustment to the level of the tube. It will be seen that a distinguishing feature of my invention is the connecting of the rails in the same structure as the slot irons and the tube, so that all the parts are maintained in their relative position, and whatever may occur to alter the place of one will have no effect, unless the change is sufficient to affect the whole structure."

There are seven claims in the patent.

Page 146 U. S. 214

The answer sets up in defense a denial of the allegation of the bill that the alleged invention was not in public use or on sale for more than two years prior to the application for the patent, and it alleges that the invention had been in public and profitable use in the United States for more than two years before the date of the application. It also sets up want of novelty and noninfringement.

There was a replication to the answer, proofs were taken, and the case was brought to a hearing before the circuit court, held by Judge Wallace, and a decree was entered dismissing the bill. From that decree the plaintiff has appealed.

The opinion of the circuit court, found in 37 F.6d 3, passed upon a single question. The Invention was put into use on the California Street railroad, a cable road in the City of San Francisco, on April 9, 1878, the road having been built by the plaintiff and put into regular operation at that time, and, as constructed, having embodied in it the invention described in the patent. The defendant contended that such use was a public use of the patented invention more than two years before the application, and that therefore the patent was invalid. The plaintiff contended, and now contends, that such use was an experimental use, and that the application was filed within two years after the plaintiff became satisfied that his invention was a practical success.

Section 4886 of the Revised Statutes, which was in force when this patent was applied for and issued, enacts that a patent may be obtained when the invention has not been "in public use or on sale for more than two years prior to the application;" and § 4920 provides that it may be pleaded and proved as a defense in a suit at law or in equity on the patent that the invention "had been in public use or on sale in this country for more than two years before" the application, or had been abandoned to the public.

From the time the cable road mentioned was put into operation, no change or modification was made in its plan or its details. In the summer of 1876, between May and the 1st of September, the plaintiff conceived the invention. Early in that year, certain persons in California obtained a franchise for the

Page 146 U. S. 215

construction of a wire cable road on California Street in San Francisco, and the plaintiff was led to believe that he would be called upon as an engineer to construct the road. He immediately commenced studying up the matter, to be prepared to recommend a plan of construction whenever called upon. He testifies that he deemed it necessary in a cable road to get a smooth, even roadway and track, and the tube or tunnel way for the cable and its carrying machinery strong enough to resist any tendency towards the closing of the slot, to provide for the grip shank, and to make a structure as a whole so permanent and durable as to stand the wear and jar of heavy street traffic as well as of the car traffic which it was to carry, and that for that purpose he deemed it necessary to have a rib or yoke, with connections to the two rails and the two slot irons, so as to connect them permanently, such yoke to be imbedded in and supported by a surrounding mass of concrete to form a support and foundation for the ribs or yokes, the bottom and sides of the cable tube or tunnel, and a foundation for the paving of the roadway. He says that he explained this invention to several persons prior to September 2, 1876, and on that day discussed the subject and explained the invention in a general way at a meeting of the directors of the proposed road. Between that time and January 1, 1877, he made a model containing two of the ribs, with an outside casing and cover, and had the space between filed in with concrete, encasing the skeleton ribs and forming "the shut section" of the completed track and tube.

His invention was adopted by the projectors of the railroad, and active work was commenced upon the structure in July, 1877. The road cost, with the equipment, $418,000, and is about two miles in length, the roadbed and tunnel construction having cost about $225,000. From April 9, 1878, it has been in regular and successful use as a street railroad, carrying passengers for pay. The plaintiff was superintendent of the road from that time until the date of his application for the patent, and afterwards until 1883.

In explanation of his delay in applying for the patent, he testifies that before he began the construction of the road, one

Page 146 U. S. 216

of the projectors expressed a doubt in regard to the durability of such a structure, and a fear that the jar of street traffic, as well as that of the cars, would in time loosen the ribs and separate them from the surrounding concrete, and the structure would thus fail; that doubts were expressed also by others; that while the plaintiff believed that there was more than an even chance of its proving a durable and desirable structure, he still had some doubt in his own mind, which was somewhat increased by the doubts expressed to him by others, in whom he had confidence; that, as causes which would contribute to the destruction of the road, there were (1) the moving of cars over a rail connected to ironwork without the intervention of any wood; (2) the street traffic of trucks and teams, to which such a structure would necessarily be exposed; (3) the changes of temperature, and (4) the effect of time, and the danger of water following down the different members of the iron work, and the rust separating them from the concrete, and that there was no way of determining these matters but by a trial in a public street through a long period of time.

He was asked whether his own doubts as to the durability of the structure were present at any time after the road was in operation, and if so, when and by what they were caused. He answered "Yes," and said that during the spring of 1879, the road was extended from Fillmore Street to Central Avenue by a wooden structure not nearly so durable or costly as the original road; that in preparing for the extension, he had occasion to dig out and around, so as to expose some of the old structure; that he saw therein some indication of the loosening of the yokes in the concrete, and that he had some little fear at that time that some trouble might arise in that respect. He further testifies that the reason he did not apply for the patent within two years from the time when he first put the structure into use was that if it proved weak or undesirable, he did not want any patent, and he did not feel certain enough of that fact until the year 1881.

But it does not appear that he expressed his doubts to the projectors of the road, either before its construction was commenced, or during its construction, or while he remained its

Page 146 U. S. 217

superintendent after it was completed, or that he communicated to anyone what he noticed during the spring of 1879, or that he entertained any fear arising therefrom.

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