Thornton, William, 1759-1828

Alternative names
Birth 1759-05-20
Death 1828-03-28

Biographical notes:

William Thornton, architect, inventor, and public official, was born in the Virgin Islands on May 20, 1759, of English parents. He came to the United States in 1787 and became a citizen in 1788. On September 12, 1794 Thornton was appointed one of the commissioners of the new federal city of Washington. He championed his own design for the Capitol and the north wing had been constructed in accordance with his ideas by the time Congress removed to Washington in 1800. In 1802 Congress abolished the board of commissioners and Thornton lost his official connection with the Capitol. Thomas Jefferson, however, appointed him clerk in the State Department, in charge of patents. Thornton is credited with having saved the Patent Office from destruction on the capture of Washington in 1814. He continued in charge of the Patent Office until his death on March 28, 1828.

From the description of Papers relating to the administration of the U.S. Patent Office during the superintendency of William Thornton, 1802-1828, 1785-1848 (inclusive), [microform]. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122646958

William Thornton was a physician and architect, and was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1787.

From the description of Papers, [ca. 1741-1804]. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122684061

From the guide to the William Thornton papers, [ca. 1741-1804], Circa 1741-1804, (American Philosophical Society)

Architect, inventor, and public official.

From the description of Papers, 1792-1827. (Historical Society of Washington, Dc). WorldCat record id: 70954431

Architect of the U.S. Capitol until 1802; Superintendent of Patents, 1802-1828.

From the description of Letter : Patent Office, to Caesar A. Rodney, Wilmington, Del., 1810 June 28. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 22919856

From the description of Letter : City of Washington, to William Young, 1817 Oct. 30. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 22919835

From the description of Letter : City of Washington, to Hyde de Neuville, New York, 1819 Sept. 25. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 22919848

From the description of Letter : to Mr. [Leeton?], [1818] July 15. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 22919861

Biographical Note

  • 1759, May 20: Born, community of the Society of Friends, Jost van Dyke Island, Tortola, Virgin Islands
  • 1764: Immigrated to England
  • 1778 - 1790 : Involved with John Fitch in experiments with paddle steamboats
  • 1784: M.D. degree, Aberdeen University, Aberdeen, Scotland
  • 1787: Immigrated to the United States
  • 1788: Became an American citizen
  • 1789: Awarded a share in the Library Company of Philadelphia for submitting the building design chosen for the new library
  • 1790: Married Anna Maria Brodeau
  • 1790 - 1792 : Returned to Tortola, Virgin Islands
  • 1792: Moved to Washington, D.C. Submitted design proposals for the United States Capitol
  • 1793: Design for the United States Capitol accepted Published Cadmus: or, a Treatise on the Elements of Written Language. Philadelphia: Aitken & Son; awarded the Magellanic gold medal of the American Philosophical Society for this publication
  • 1794 - 1802 : Commissioner, City Board of Commissioners, Washington, D.C.
  • 1798 - 1802 : Built Octagon House in Washington, D.C., for Colonel John Tayloe
  • 1802 - 1828 : Superintendent of patents
  • 1804: Published Political Economy: Founded in Justice and Humanity. Washington, D.C.: Samuel Harrison Smith
  • 1812: Tudor Place, Georgetown, Washington, D.C., built from his designs
  • 1814: Helped prevent the destruction of the United States Patent Office by British troops
  • 1828, Mar. 28: Died, Washington, D.C.

From the guide to the William Thornton Papers, 1741-1865, (Manuscript Division Library of Congress)


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  • African Americans--Colonization--Africa
  • Patents
  • Steamboats
  • Patents--United States
  • Models (Patents)
  • Medicine
  • Chinese language--translating into English
  • Slavery--United States
  • Architecture
  • Society of Friends--Tortola
  • Society of Friends


  • Public officers--United States
  • Superintendents of patents
  • Architect
  • Inventors


  • Greece (as recorded)
  • Spain (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • South America (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Tortola (as recorded)