Originally published -
Next Tuesday, June 19th, 2018, the USPTO will award the 10 millionth patent in United States History. This is a big moment for the inventors, and I would like to take a look back in time at some of the notable patents in the history of the United States Patent Office.
Unfortunately, in 1836 all previous patent records burnt away in a fire. At this point in history there had been over 10,000 patents filed since the law was passed in 1790. We do not have any significant record of this work, but we do have the bare bones of these patent applications, known as the "X Patents".
The first patent ever awarded in the United States went to Samuel Hopkins for a new kind of Potash, which was a common ingredient in manufacturing processes at the time. The patent was signed off on by George Washington himself, and then they were off. Patents came in slow at first, with only 3 being filed in the first year of existence of the patent laws.
It may be surprising to some how many patents go through the Patent Office that are completely ridiculous, whether by a severe lack of market awareness or by purposeful jest. So deciding which invention in United States history could be crowned with the weirdest patent is no trivial matter. From a shirt with a connected gerbil environment to a flatulence deodorizing pad, to Google's own wave-power server farm patent, there is no end to the depths of oddity that the USPTO has seen over the years. At the end of the day, I have to acknowledge patent number 5,421,783, the "Improved Human Slingshot Machine" as the oddest patent because in this case the patent actually had prior art! Issuing on June 6, 1995, the patent offers considerable improvements on the prior art, which used rubber strands to propel the rider that tended to deteriorate.
One patent that was thought to be preposterously filed in 2001 was for a "crustless PB&J" sandwich. Who would buy something that they could so easily make? How can the removal of the crusts justify novelty? Smuckers knew that this lemon had a chance to be a big cherry on top of their jelly business.
This is a point of contention for many in the world of patent law. First of all, is the most important patent based on the innovation in an industry, or the impact that the patent had on others in the industry? For example, well before the United States patent laws went into effect in 1790, James Watt held one of the most contentious patents on steam engines, which was granted in 1769. Despite numerous drawbacks to the technology patented by Watt, he refused to license it to others to allow them to make improvements and even acquired an extension that kept the patent in effect until 1800. Many see this stubbornness on the part of Watt as a debilitating effect that slowed the innovation of steam engines by about 30 years.
When it comes to patents in the United States, I would have to say that Thomas Edison was the father of modern invention, after all, I'm a physicist. But seriously, I would happily concede that there were more important patents in the field of chemistry and pharmaceuticals, but without the context and background in chemistry, it would be an injustice to try to dissect the many brilliant works in the field. On the other hand, it is easier to follow the path that patent number 223,898 led Edison down in perfecting electrical distribution in the late 1800s. While Edison's original lightbulb was actually just an improvement on prior art (a fact that many would be surprised to hear), his 48th granted patent was really a stepping stone for something much larger. Edison continued to refine electrical distribution as he founded the Edison Illuminating Company in 1880, and over a series of dozens of patents laid the groundwork for the system of electrical distribution that I can credit for the ability to charge this laptop I'm writing with.
The fact is that this small list of patents does no justice to laborious efforts of the inventors in America, and the tireless efforts of patent examiners and attorneys in getting these inventions into our system in a proper way. The fact is that while many think that patents suppress innovation, they effectually do the opposite. Patents reward inventors to continue their craft, and ensure them that they will be rewarded for their massive efforts. Thomas Jefferson was once weary of including patent laws in the early laws of the United States, but was convinced by James Madison to reconsider. He eventually went on to ink the law that would eventually become section 101 of Title 35 in the United States Code, and the thought that I will leave you with for this article.
"Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title."