Innovation provides the energy to propel the digital age into tomorrow. Business magnate Elon Musk said, “You should be innovating so fast that you’re invalidating your prior patents.”
Patents have figured significantly into the scheme of inventions in the US, from its very roots. One of America’s founding fathers and the main author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, said, “Ingenuity should receive a liberal encouragement. Patentable subject matter should include anything under the sun that is made by man.”
Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th President famed for his leadership during the country’s Civil War, explained the necessity of patents for innovation. He referred to pre-1624 – the time before England established Patent Laws. “Before then any man [might] instantly use what another man had invented, so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this, secured to the inventor for a limited time exclusive use of his inventions, and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”
History records, that even before the Patent Law came into existence in England, King Henry VI, in 1449, gave John of Utynam, a Flemish glassmaker, the absolute right for 20 years, to produce stained glass, which was a technique not prevalent in England at the time.
There are also historians who believe that the first industrial patent was filed in 1421, when an architect from Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi, developed a crane system to haul marble from marble quarries in Tuscany’s Carrara Mountains.
In America, the US Congress passed the initial Patent Act on April 10, 1790, described as “”An Act to promote the progress of useful Arts.” On July 31, 1970, the first patent was granted under this Act, to Samuel Hopkins, an inventor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for his new method of producing potash or potassium carbonate.
And thus began invention patenting in the US.
It took a while for the process to set in motion. During the first year, only three patents were registered. However, by 1836, about 10,000 patents were on the list. With the stacks of official documents increasing, the government realized the need for a bigger, fire-resistant building. With the building a work in progress, patent papers were in temporary storage, where, unexpectedly, a fire broke, and destroyed them. Today, the destroyed patents are known as “X-Patents.” Through research, writer Lucas Reilly found the first 10 patents in the US. The first was for Samuel Hopkins, the second to Joseph Sampson’s candle-making technique, the third to Oliver Evans’ automated flour mill, the fourth to Francis Baileys’ printer, the fifth to Aaron Putnam’s improved distilling process, and the sixth to John Stone’s pile driver for bridges. The 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th patents were taken by Philadelphia inventor Samuel Mulliken for a machine to thresh grain and corn, a device to break hemp, an apparatus to cut and polish marble and a device to raise nap on cloth.
On the other hand, the Golden Age of American inventions, is considered the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was the time of electrical pioneers like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and telecommunications inventors like Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray.
Research shows that inventions around 1880 happened with experiments done outside corporate premises. Research labs like the one Edison opened in 1876 in Menlo Park, New Jersey, were hard to find at the time. Halfway through the 20th century, big companies took over patenting products. By 2000, around 80% of patent requests were submitted by employees of different companies. And research pointed to a trend that companies that were awarded patents engaged in greater innovative practices than corporates that did not own intellectual property. Statistics of the US Department of Commerce show that 38.2% of the American economy comprises intellectual property-oriented industries. These corporates account for over 45.5 million high-paying jobs, which amounts to around 30% percent of all jobs created in the US.
Currently, there are over 8 million patents granted over the years, and the Patent and Trademark Office is completed exhausted with overload. The bar has been lowered, as a result, and some patents awarded are allegedly unworthy of consideration. According to a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the number of law suits over patents increased from around 1200 in 1991 to 5000 in 2012.
However, there is proof in real life that patents encourage greater effort at inventions and raising the bar on quality and efficiency. For anyone to register and publish their ideas, there has to be newness, usefulness and obscurity in the discoveries. If these characteristics are ingrained in the idea, it is granted a patent, which allows a temporary monopoly, generally 20 years, for the person to benefit from his discovery. This benefit of material gain is a compelling reason for inventors to put their best foot forward in forging ahead to conquer technological frontiers. What is more, it has a snowballing effect as others can build on the published knowledge to push the envelope further. King C. Gillette, the American businessman who invented the compellingly popular version of the safety razor, said,” A successful razor can be made on the principles of the Gillette patent… and the advance of anything known can be reached.”
Yet, none but the bold will break frontiers. Former CEO of Apple Steve Jobs was awarded about 200 patents since he died, and Chairman and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg holds around 50 patents in his name. Creator of Dilbert comic strip, Scott Adams said, “Great minds don’t think alike. If they did, the Patent Office would only have about fifty inventions.”