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Patently absurd

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Patently absurd, and still going strong

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1984, The Syracuse Newspapers

An electric toothpick? A parachute that you wear like a hat? How about a flame-retardant cigarette?

You're right. They're all patently absurd. But they're also patentable.

Ideas like that cross the desks at the United States Patent Office just about every day. In fact, the Patent Office gets about 4,000 patent applications, on the average, every single working day.

That's a lot of ideas. A lot of them go back out through the mails as inventions. The Patent Office granted 59,715 patents last year out of 107,704 applications.

A lot of those ideas come from ordinary people, those who aren't engineers or scientists. Experts estimate that more than 2 million Americans are working on inventions on a regular or part-time basis.

Even though more than half of all the U.S. patent applications were approved last year, that doesn't mean the inventors were successful. Success is measured by a tougher scale, according to official figures.

Only 1 percent of all inventions actually succeed, these figures show. But only 10 percent of those few—in other words, only about 1 in 1,000 ever really pay off by supplying royalties to their inventors.

It's not difficult to get a patent, which is actually nothing more than a government license granting an exclusive 17-year monopoly on an invention.

The power to do so is written in the Constitution, in Article One, Section Eight. It gives Congress the power "to promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to the respective Writings 4and Discoveries."

Those "Writings and Discoveries" have to pass the scrutiny of the Patent Office's examiners first, however. They'll turn down ideas that aren't new and different, and they'll also want a clear demonstration that the idea—the gizmo or gadget or whatever—actually works.

If the examiners think you've got something unique, you've got a patent. All you've got to come up with is $150 for the basic fee, as long as you're an amateur. Pros are charged $300.

There was no charge at all for the inventor of the wheel, since there was no such thing as a patent 5,000 or so years ago when somebody first stuck a flat, round disc onto an axle.

(Just think - if there had been patents in those days, the wheel might be known as the Johnson or the Wapingo.)

And the same goes for the lever (much older than the wheel) and the bow and arrow. But a lot of what we take for granted actually was patented. Take, for example:

  • Screws and the screwdriver;: Invented in 1840 by an Englishman.
  • Frozen food: Invented in 1914 by an American, Clarence Birdseye.
  • The aerosol spray can: Invented in 1941 by an American.
  • The transistor: Invented in 1948 by three Americans.
  • The list goes on and on. Take a look at just three recent inventions:

    From MCI Communications, a nationwide paging system that will tell users the telephone number of the person who's trying to call them. (Just the thing for avoiding those calls from your *brother-in-law Larry, who's trying to get you to pay up that $40 you owe.)

    From a California company, a jukebox plays videos, at 50 cents a play or three for $1. And from Federal Telephone, a phone shaped in the, ahem, form of a young lady. (No jokes, please; these folks are serious.)

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