BELIEF VALVES FOR STEAM FIRE ENGINES.
JUDGE WHEELER of the United States Circuit yesterday rendered a decision by which the city will save nearly $10,000,000. It was in the suit of Christopher C. Campbell against the city to recover payment for the use of a relief valve used on fire engines to prevent the bursting of hose and the loss of water. This valve was invented by James Knibbs. The defense of the city was that the valve had been in use before it was patented, and that the patent was invalid. After a long trial Judge Wheeler decided in favor of the plaintiff, and referred the case to Commissioner Duell to determine the amount due Campbell. The latter presented a claim for $2 500,000, and proved it. In the spring of 1886 the Supreme Court of the United States rendered a decision in a similar case which was directly opposite to Judge Wheeler’s opinion. This Judge then retried the case and decided that the patent was invalid. Corporation Counsel Beckman yesterday, in speaking of the large amount of money saved by this decision, said that the valve had been in use on all the steam engines during the past seventeen years. Messrs. Lockwood & Post appeared for the plaintiff and the Corporation Counsel for the city.—N. F. Star.
The above paragraph is a matter of greater importance than appears upon its face, if the statements therein are true. There is probably scarcely a steam fire engine in use to-day that has not affixed to it a relief valve of some kind. The purpose of the relief valve is to enable the man controlling the pipe at a fire to cut off the stream of water at will, without stopping the engine. By closing the nozzle the flow of water through the hose is turned back and discharged through the relief valve, while the engine continues its work. This simple little appliance has done more to prevent water damage at fires than anything else, for the pipeman can so control the stream as to use a full volume of water, a small stream, or shut it off entirely, as the condition of the fire he is fighting may require. Many years ago James Knibbs obtained a patent upon this relief valve attached to a steam fire engine, and it was claimed that not only did his patent cover the mechanism of the valve, but the method of attachment, so that if his patent was valid it was impossible for anyone else to attach any other valve to a steam fire engine without becoming an infringer.
The Knibbs patent has been almost as fruitful of litigation as was the patent for driven wells. The decisions have been both for and against the patent, some courts having held it to be invalid, others that it was the bottom patent on relief valves as attached to steam fire engines. New York city never, we believe, used the Knibbs valve, but it has used relief valves made by various other parties, there being probably a dozen different ones in the market. A few years ago the owners of the Knibbs patent brought suit against the city of New York, claiming damages for the use of the relief valve upon engines in this city during the entire life of the patent, which was fourteen years, the term having expired, however, previous to the beginning of the suit. Judge Wheeler of the United Stales Circuit Court, after hearing the case, decided in favor of the patentees, holding that the patent was properly issued, and that the owners thereof were entitled to damages from the city for having used relief valves that infringed the patent without the consent of Knibbs, and without having paid him any royalty. The court appointed Commissioner Duell, master in chancery, to take testimony to ascertain the amount of damages that should be awarded to the patentees against the city. The examination of experts has been progressing for some four years before Commissioner Duell, and experts in the fire service from this and various other cities have been examined at length as to the value of the relief valve in the extinguishment of fires. Their testimony was unanimous to the effect that it was of the utmost importance, enabling the firemen to extinguish fires with much less damage than could be done without the relief valve. The result of this testimony was that the commissioner reported that the city was indebted to the patentees in a very large sum—the above report says nearly $10,000,000, but we think that amount is exaggerated, although we do not know the exact figures. We do know, however, that the owners of the patent expected to receive an award of about one-half this amount.
It seems, however, from the statement above given, that a case has been decided in the Supreme Court of the United States, wherein the validity of the Knibbs patent was in controversy, and that the decision is adverse to the patent, declaring it to be invalid and of no effect. The grounds upon which the decision of the Supreme Court is made are understood to be that the relief valve was not a new invention ; that it was a well-known mechanical construction previous to being taken up by Knibbs, and had been used upon sea going vessels for many years, and that its mere appliance to steam fire engines did not constitute a patentable invention or combination.
If it be true that the Supreme Court of the United States has declared the patent to be invalid, Judge Wheeler, of course, had nothing to do but to reverse his previous decision, thus relieving the city of its liability for the amount awarded to the patentees, which, according to the above report, has been done. Of course, the Supreme Court decision applies to the whole country, and the Knibbs claimants are effectually “knocked out,” and can have no further claim against any city for an infringement of patents covering the relief valve. There are, however, various makers of relief valves who have valid patents upon their special forms of valves, and those patents are valid until the contrary is affirmed by a court of competent jurisdiction. The Knibbs claimants maintained that their patent was the underlying one, and, if their claim had been sustained, all the others would have been infringements, but his patent being set aside as invalid, the others hold as to the peculiar mechanism of each. There have been suits for infringement between the owners of these several patents, which have been decided one way and another until the rights of the several inventors seem to be very much befogged. Their hostilities were virtually brought to a standstill by the sweeping claim of the Knibbs patentees, but now that that patent is out of the field, we may expect to see these other rival manufacturers renewing their several claims by litigation or otherwise. We trust, however, that no more cities will be dragged into the quarrel, and that the various inventors and owners of relief valve patents may adjust their difficulties among themselves. Why not pool your issues and make a relief valve trust, each one selling wherever he can and dividing the profits? This would be a great deal better and more profitable than to be persistently throwing money into the rapacious maws of insatiable lawyers.
—The Standard gives the fire losses in the United States reported last week as $1,849000, making the total since January 1 $59,152,000, which would make the loss for the year $115,457.tb5.