Inventors Eye

february2014

A flower is on a piece of aerogel which is suspended over a Bunsen burner. Aerogel has excellent insulating properties, and the flower is protected from the flame.

What's New in Winter Fabric Technology

What will we see at the 2014 Winter Olympics? Aside from some amazing athletics, we could also witness the next trend in winter fabric technology.

If you caught the perennial motion-picture classic “A Christmas Story” over the holidays, you saw Ralphie Parker’s little brother, Randy, bundled up in a snowsuit resembling the Michelin Man. Perhaps your well-meaning mother dressed you like that when you were young. Many of us remember bulky, marginally warm snowsuits with something less than love. But fabric technology has come along way over the years. The gear that will be worn by athletes competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is a far cry from Randy Parker’s snowsuit. The next generation of lightweight, high-tech materials will heat your body and keep you dry, even in extreme weather.

Winter sports fabrics evolved at a leisurely pace until the 1990s, when things changed dramatically. The Olympics have a tradition of introducing us to these changes. Remember those sleek spider web suits worn by the U.S. Ski Team at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway? Besides bringing a new look to the games, they contained patented technology that increased aerodynamics of the wearer. Innovations in fibers, fabric construction, and design have led to technical textiles becoming a part of nearly all modern outdoor wear.

One of the most exciting innovations involves the use of aerogels for insulating clothing layers. Aerogels, first patented in the early 20th century, are created from a process of removing the liquid from silica gel crystals. They also happen to be the least-dense solid material known to man, composed of up to 99 percent air, and offer superior insulating properties. In fact, a single 3 millimeter layer can keep you warm in subzero temperatures. For most of their existence, aerogels were too costly to manufacture commercially and had limited applications due to their brittleness. That has all changed. In 2012, NASA researchers discovered a way to exponentially strengthen aerogels so that they could be stretched, compressed, and manipulated in a variety of ways. Subsequent developments in the academic world led to new and less-expensive manufacturing processes. So far, only experimental clothing has been created using this technology. While there’s no word yet if we’ll see aerogels in Olympic uniforms this year, it wouldn’t be surprising.

Another promising development is the arrival of air-permeable fabrics. For a long time, cold weather athletes have had to compromise between staying warm and staying dry. Materials such as Gore-Tex offer excellent waterproof capabilities—so excellent, in fact, that they trap sweat and moisture that needs to escape. New air-permeable fabrics completely block water on one side while allowing water vapor to escape from the body. This technology is the result of new manufacturing processes that treat micro-porous material with waterproofing agents without covering the pores, preserving the fabric’s breathability. Outerwear incorporating this technology has already hit the shelves, and you’ll no doubt see it on some Olympic athletes in Sochi.

Many other fabric technologies are continuously in the works as manufacturers continue to push the envelope of innovation. At the United States Patent and Trademark Office, patent applications for new technologies arrive at a blistering pace. Patents are not just business tools for financial gain: they’re a way to chart the progress of human development. Even one hundred years ago, many of today’s popular sporting activities would not have been possible in cold weather. Fabric technology has come a long way in a short amount of time, allowing humans to compete harder, stronger, and faster in the most unforgiving of conditions. While only a fraction of this technology has made its way to department store shelves, the consumer demand for continuously fashionable, lightweight, and warm performance clothing makes it all but sure we’ll see more soon.

What will we see during the 2014 Olympics? Besides awe-inspiring skiing, skating, and sledding—among many other sports—it could be the next trend in cold weather wear. Whatever we see, one thing is certain: the fabric of history is in the making.

John Calvert : Office of Innovation Development

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U.S. Patent No. 7,631,443: Wheeled Shovel with Hinge Apparatus.

Patents Pick-5
Winter Patents

Bunkered in during a snow advisory? Had enough of that polar vortex? We’ve got just the thing to bring you a little cheer when the weather outside remains bleak.

There’s a lot of ways we escape winter’s grip, but the following five patents may bring you some warmth, some joy, and even some relief from the cold and wintry days. In no particular order, here are my five favorite cold weather patents.

Note: This article is the first in an ongoing series detailing some of the Inventors Eye staff’s favorite patents. For each article, the writer selects their five favorite patents under a given theme. Our first list is from Acting Associate Commissioner for Innovation Development Anthony Knight.

 

U.S. Patent No. 3,612,075
Aircraft Deicing Apparatus

When I originally saw U.S. patent no. 3,612,075 years ago, I thought, “Wow! It’s a carwash for airplanes.” Well, not exactly. It looked pretty wild, but at the time I wondered whether it could be practical. Fast forward a few years and I found myself at the Pittsburgh airport on a very cold day in January. My plane had landed for a short layover, and as I looked at the accumulated ice on the wings I thought, “We’ll never take off again.”  Ice on the wings of an airplane adds weight and makes it hard to control. But then the plane pulled up to a deicing station—just like the one I’d seen in the patent—and within minutes the plane was treated and we were in the air. Deicing stations like this have kept many an airport open and airline passengers safe.

 

U.S. Patent No. 5,864,886
Article of Thermal Clothing for Covering the Underlying Area at the Gap Between a Coat Sleeve and a Glove

Despite the long title, U.S. patent no. 5,864,886 is so deceptively simple even a kid could make it. In fact, a kid did invent it! It is a wrap for the wrist. Those of us in cold climates know that the space between the glove and the sleeve is the Achilles heel of every good pair of gloves. This invention covers the wrist and keeps heat from escaping. It can also be used without gloves or mittens if the wearer needs to handle small items.

 

U.S. Patent No. 7,631,443
Wheeled Shovel with Hinge Apparatus

For those of us with bad backs, the wheeled snow shovel (U.S. Patent No. 7,631,443) is a great invention. This device pushes snow along the ground and throws it without the operator having to bend or use his or her back. Just simply step forward and push down on the handle and the snow flies. It almost makes me want to get up from my cozy seat on the couch and go outside to shovel the sidewalk. Almost.

 

U.S. Patent No. D503,125
Two Piece Snowman Mold

No collection of winter themed patents would be complete without a snowman mold. One of my favorites is D503,125. This mold has everything you need for a proper snowman. Not only do you get the basic shape of the snowman, but you also get the nose, the eyes, and even the hat! This is an excellent invention for those of us who, like me, are artistically challenged.  

 

U.S. Patent No. 4,169,709
Artificial Fireplace Logs

My last selection is U.S. Patent No. 4,169,709, which doesn’t have a drawing, so you’ll just have to imagine a wood-like log. Interestingly, this is not the first artificial fuel ever patented—you would have to go back to 1864 for that. While some people may not favor artificial fireplace logs, they do have some advantages over natural wood. Many of them are composed of waste materials, so using them reduces the number of trees cut for firewood. And the Artificial Fireplace Log does make a crackling sound similar to a natural log. They also burn clean and can create a fun display of colors.

Anthony Knight : Office of Innovation Development

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Dr. Patricia E. Bath and a drawing from her patent (No. 4,744,360).

Spark of Genius
Uncovering History’s Black Women Inventors

February and March are Black History Month and Women’s History Month, respectively. Inventors Eye takes a look at past and present to salute the many Black women inventors who have contributed to the growth of innovation in America.

Black women throughout American history have impacted and contributed to our nation’s culture of innovation. Patents offer a unique lens through which to view history. By tracing the technologies patents protect—or once protected—as well as the inventors listed on those patents, an image of the past emerges. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents for more than 200 years. That’s a lot of history, and it contains many stories of successful black women who have changed the technological face of America. Today, black women continue to ignite the spark of genius and make key and meaningful contributions to America’s inventive process.

The trove of historical information locked in patents can be a challenge to extract, as patents do not record extensive personal details about inventors such as race. Adding to the difficulty is the common practice of early inventors to use initials as a way to conceal their identity or gender. There is ongoing debate about the first black woman inventor, but modern research tools have made it less difficult to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. Though we may never be able to tell the full story of black women inventors, the findings reveal that they have consistently conceived innovative ideas and aggressively filed patent applications throughout history.

Martha Jones of Amelia County, Va., might have become the first black woman to receive a United States patent. Her application for an “Improvement to the Corn Husker, Sheller” was granted U.S. patent No. 77,494 in 1868. Jones claimed her invention could husk, shell, cut up, and separate husks from corn in one operation, representing a significant step forward in the automation of agricultural processes. Five years later in 1873, Mary Jones De Leon of Baltimore was granted U.S. patent No. 140,253 for a novel cooking apparatus. De Leon’s invention consisted of the construction and arrangement of a device for heating food by dry heat and steam. The design of the apparatus shows that it was an early precursor to the steam tables now found often at food buffets.

Other documented 19th century black women inventors include Judy W. Reed and Sarah Goode. Reed, from Washington, D.C., was granted a patent in 1884 for a dough kneader and roller (U.S. patent No. 305,474) and Goode, from Chicago, was granted a patent in 1885 for a folding cabinet chair (U.S. patent No. 322,177).

While it is unknown if any black woman received a patent prior to the Civil War, there is irony in the fact that black women obtained patents long before passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote or the advances in civil rights during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Starting in the 20th century it became far easier to determine the identity of inventors thanks to improvements in archiving information. Modern black women continue to make significant innovations in a variety of technological fields. One such inventor is Dr. Patricia E. Bath, who invented a widely used method and apparatus of removing cataracts (U.S. patent No. 4,744,360). This invention uses lasers to remove cataracts from the eye in a less-invasive way and has helped restore or improve vision to millions of patients worldwide, making it one of the most important developments in the field of ophthalmology.

Sandra Johnson, the first black woman to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering in the United States, has made many contributions to computer architecture during her career with IBM. She was part of the team that designed the prototype for IBM’s “Deep Blue”—the chess playing computer that defeated Garry Kasparov. Johnson is listed on over 40 U.S. patents.

Although compiling a complete list of black women inventors may be impossible, their influence is felt by us every day through their inventions that have changed how we work and play. As we observe both Black History Month in February and Woman’s History Month in March, let’s take time to honor these individuals who have contributed so much to our way of life and to the progress of science and useful arts.

Dennis Forbes : Office of Innovation Development

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advice

To Interview or Not to Interview

Tips and information regarding patents and trademarks from the experts at the USPTO

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Women's Entrepreneurship Symposium. University of Denver, Colorado. March 22 - 23.
events and announcements

February and March

Upcoming events and news in the world of innovation

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network

Organizations

Organizations and resources for the independent inventor community

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The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks in Inventors Eye. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.

 
In this issue
What's New in Winter Fabric Technology
Patents Pick-5
Winter Patents
Spark of Genius
Uncovering History’s Black Women Inventors
Advice
To Interview or Not to Interview
Events and Announcements
February and March
Network
Organizations for Inventors

 

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