Edward J. Brenner was born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, on June 26, 1923. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin.
He served in the U.S. Army and was a member of the radiological safety team for the Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb tests. He was an engineer and patent attorney with Standard Oil of New Jersey’s Esso Research and Engineering Co., where he became assistant director of the legal division.
President Lyndon Johnson appointed Brenner commissioner of patents, and he took the oath of office on March 11, 1964.
On June 8, 1964, after three months in office, Brenner gave a widely published speech to patent examiners at the large chamber, now named the Mellon Auditorium, near the Department of Commerce. In it he announced changes in long-established patent examining procedures designed to reduce the time patent applications remained pending in the office. The “pendency” time in 1964 was about three years and rising.
Under Brenner’s policy, (1) the examiner’s second rejection in practically all cases was final, (2) examiners could suggest how to make claims allowable and conduct an interview after final rejection, (3) time available for applicants to reply was shortened, and (4) applications with the oldest filing dates were taken up first. This policy reduced the number of patent interference proceedings.
In 1965 the office granted design patent number 200,000. Congress increased fees charged to applicants, which in that era were fixed by statute.
In 1966 President Johnson released the Report of the President’s Commission on the Patent System. Two prominent private citizens not closely connected with patents—Harry Huntt Ransom and Simon Rifkind—chaired the 14-member commission. The report made 35 recommendations, most requiring legislation, which if enacted would have resulted in the biggest change to the patent system since 1836.
The next year President Johnson sent legislation to Congress to implement the report. Recommendations included awarding the patent to the first inventor to file, establishing a proceeding for cancelling patents, and publishing patent applications after 18 months. Brenner and other officials testified at Senate and House hearings.
The legislation remained active for the rest of Brenner’s tenure, but many recommendations proved controversial and support faded. Several changes in patent law resembling recommendations by the president’s commission would be accepted by Congress decades later, in 1999 and 2011.
The most significant patent or trademark opinion of the Supreme Court during Brenner’s tenure was Graham v. John Deere Co. in 1966. The court interpreted the nonobviousness requirement for patentability first codified in the Patent Act of 1952.
In 1967 the Patent Office began moving to a larger, more modern office space across the Potomac River in Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia. The office had been in the Commerce Building since 1932, except during World War II when most of its operations relocated to Richmond, Virginia, and before that at the Old Patent Office building at 8th and F streets, NW, in Washington, D.C., since 1840.
Brenner continued the movement toward giving full or partial authority to more patent examiners to sign their own letters rejecting and allowing patent applications. Patent Office participation in international meetings continued to increase.
Brenner resigned as commissioner on May 6, 1969, after the election of President Richard Nixon. He became a vice president of General Instrument Corp. and then a partner in a law firm in the Washington area.
In 1974 he formed one of the first nonprofit associations devoted exclusively to educating the public about the value that intellectual property protection provides to the nation. The association founded the National Inventor of the Year Award. When he retired he transferred the award program to a larger association that continued it.
Brenner died on June 15, 1992, in Punta Gorda, Florida.
Address of Commissioner Edward J. Brenner, 46 JPOS 463 (1964).
Stacy V. Jones, The Patent Office (1971).
President’s Commission on the Patent System, To Promote the Progress of . . . Useful Arts in an Age of Exploding Technology (1966).
USPTO, Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Patents (1964-69).
USPTO, The Story of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1988).