Inventors Eye


From left to right: Charles Townes, Patent 2,929,922 for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, and Arthur Schawlow

Lasers, Patents, and Progress: the Spirit of Follow-On Innovation

In honor of the 225th anniversary of the first Patent Act on April 10, 2015, Inventors Eye explores the evolution of an iconic technology and the many innovators who have contributed to its development.

Four years ago, scientists, technologists, and innovators celebrated the 50th anniversary of the laser, reminding us of the many ways in which patented laser technology—like other forms of intellectual property (IP)—has transformed our way of life by creating tens of thousands of jobs and generating billions of dollars of business in the United States and around the world through a continuous process of what is commonly called follow-on innovation.

The Founding Fathers would no doubt have taken pride in the laser as yet another shining example proving the value of the “progress clause” in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and of the first Patent Act that soon followed it.

Alternately known as the copyright or patent clause, the progress clause, written in 1787, empowered Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Rooted in British common law and European history, the limited term of that “exclusive right”—as a patent, copyright or, later, a trademark—was, much like the Constitution itself, a judicious balance, one that could provide an incentive for invention and disseminate knowledge while also guaranteeing that others could, after an appropriate period of time, freely incorporate these “Writings and Discoveries” for their own purposes of creativity and innovation.

The Patent Act of 1790 further defined the subject matter of a patent as “any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement thereon not before known or used,”—any improvement thereon being an early and explicit acknowledgement of the importance of cumulative or follow-on innovation.

The cumulative innovation that provided myriad forms of laser technology we enjoy today began in 1917 with Albert Einstein, the first to theorize the process of “stimulated emission.” But it wasn’t until 1954 that Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow turned theory into practice with their invention of Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, or maser, using ammonia gas and microwave radiation, for which they were granted U.S. Patent 2,929,922 in 1960.

Publication of their findings in 1958 generated a race among researchers and innovators to build the first laser. Gordon Gould, a student of Townes’, built the first optical laser in 1958. In 1960, Theodore Maiman invented the ruby laser and Ali Javan the first gas laser. In 1962, Robert Hall invented the semiconductor injection laser, which is still used in many electronic appliances and communications systems. Gary Starkweather invented the laser printer in 1969. And in 1981, Samuel Blum, Rangaswamy Srinivasan, and James Wynne co-invented a process using a short pulse ultraviolet laser to etch tissue in minute increments and in a highly controlled fashion. Gholam Peyman improved upon their discovery in his invention of LASIK eye surgery, patented in 1989.

In his 2002 autobiography, “How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist, Townes wrote that the “development of the maser and laser, and their subsequent applications in my career and in science and technology generally, followed no script except to hew to the nature of humans groping to understand, to explore, and to create.” Over that same period of exploration and creation, more than 55,000 laser-related patents were granted in the United States.

Those same patents have generated billions of dollars of business since 1960, through licensing fees and the many laser-based products created in the lab, manufactured at home and abroad, and sold and employed for the benefit of consumers in the marketplace. The “exclusive right” guaranteed in the progress clause of the U.S. Constitution made that possible. It provides companies an incentive to innovate in the knowledge that a patented invention can not only help them recover the costs of research and development, but allows them to reap profits from licensing and sales that can in turn fund more innovation, while simultaneously disseminating the information needed for others to explore, create, and improve upon previous patented technology.

But for scientists like Townes, the thrill of discovery and creation will always be a compelling incentive of its own, not to mention the recognition of their achievements that survive long after they’re gone. In addition to several Nobel Prizes,, many of these pioneers of patented laser technology have since been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, maintained in partnership with Invent Now Inc. at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, Virginia. They include Charles Townes (1976); Theodore Maiman (1984); Gordon Gould (1991); Robert Hall (1994); Arthur Schawlow (1996); Samuel Blum, Rangaswamy Srinivasan, and James Wynne (2002); Ali Javan (2006); and Gary Starkweather (2012).

Blum, Peyman, Srinivasan, and Wynne were also recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement, administered by the USPTO on behalf of the Department of Commerce.

“I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators,” President Obama said, in awarding the medals in early 2013. “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great—and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”

Fostering that creative and entrepreneurial environment remains the central promise of the progress clause, 227 years after it was written and 225 years since the Patent Act of 1790. Ensuring that our nation’s IP laws continue to spur the kind of innovation that made the evolution of the laser possible remains one of the key missions of the USPTO. 

Eric Atkisson : Office of the Chief Communications Officer

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Science Fiction to Science Fact

Many of us today still recall our mothers telling us to stop “living in a fantasy world” or to “put down that comic book and go outside!” The concern being that our brains would rot if we didn’t get the fresh air needed to grow and succeed. Little did our mothers know how inspirational fantasy books, movies, and comic strips have been to American innovation.

Some of the most well-known inventions, past and present, can be traced back to science fiction. Of course there’s no way to list every invention that has its roots in fiction, and in many cases it is simply a coincidence that someone invented a device that another person first imagined in a story. But with every new sci-fi book, movie, or video game that is released, there’s no knowing if it will be the spark of inspiration for the next flip phone (aka the Star Trek communication device).

In the 1899 novel “When the Sleeper Wakes” by H.G. Wells, the main character sleeps for 200 years and awakens in the future. At one point, the narrator describes “a long strip of this apparently solid wall rolled up with a snap, hung over the two retreating men and fell again.” Readers at the time may have had difficulty imagining such a contraption or understanding its purpose, but just over 60 years later, Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt invented the automatic door, now a common component of buildings all over the world. In 1967, the pair were issued their first patent for the sliding panel traversing housing and supporting means (U.S. Patent no. 3,327,428). Then, in 1969, a second patent was issued for the swinging slide panel construction (U.S. Patent no. 3,464,159). Today, Horton Automatics is still selling doors to commercial, industrial, and institutional locations.

Another book that heralded a very popular invention is Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451 published in 1953. In it, Bradbury describes “little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in” that people put in their ears—a pretty fair description of what we would come to call “earbud” headphones. Earbuds are now a common sight on the street for the young and old. Inventors have been playing with the concept for decades, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s when Sony released the Walkman that earbud headphones gained popularity. A gradual incline of users through the ‘80s and ‘90s led to a boom when Apple came out with the iPod. With every purchase, users received a pair of white earbuds. These headphones became a mark of owners’ brand loyalty and pride, and since their introduction, earbuds have become even more popular and iconic.

Children of the 1960s and later will remember “The Jetsons,” an animated show produced by Hanna-Barbera. There were many futuristic inventions portrayed in this show, but the one with the biggest personality was Rosie the Robot. Serving as maid for the Jetson family, she also helped raise the children and dispensed advice (along with food pills) as needed. Today, a less humanlike robot can be found helping with the cleaning in many a home. Roomba, the autonomous robotic vacuum, was launched in 2002 by iRobot.. Today, more than 10 million have been sold, with multiple model versions released to the public. iRobot holds many patents for the Roomba’s technology, but the first was U.S. 6,594,844 for a robot obstacle detection system.

And finally, the one the world has been waiting for with bated breath: the hover board. In 1989, Amblin Entertainment released the feature film “Back to the Future 2,” in which Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) travels forward in time to 2015. Yes, his future is currently our present. There were a multitude of futuristic inventions portrayed in this film, some of which have come to pass, but the most beloved and wished-for invention—the one that stoked the imagination of many ‘80s kids (and adults for that matter), was the hover board. As of 2014, we finally have one. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Hendo Hover created a working hover board. The device is based on magnetic technology, and though it can only operate above a non-ferrous metal surface (for now), it has piqued many people’s interests. You can go online and watch legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk test the device, and though it’s a little bulkier than what was in the movie, the design is nonetheless breathtaking.

The human imagination has taken us from living in caves to the technologically advanced world we now inhabit. With every step forward, we create a wealth of possibilities for the next generation of humanity. Writers, filmmakers, artists—they are all dreamers who foresee a world that is often unimaginable to the rest of us. Of course, it takes a lot of time and work, but there’s no denying that what was once science fiction can eventually become science fact.

Messina Smith : Office of Innovation Development

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U.S. Patent No. 8,025,526 for self powered electric vehicle charging connector locking system

Patents Pick-5
My Milestone Patents

Ideas are a dime a dozen for those who strive to make changes in something already existing or to create totally new technologies.

Everyone has their own list of what they consider “milestones” in technology. Sometimes our lists are similar, sometimes not, and sometimes they contain technology that we would have never thought possible. For me, that’s what these patents represent, and I cannot wait to see what future inventors have in store for the world to see.

Note: This article is part of 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. This list is from Management and Program Analyst David Jones.

Hybrid Electric Vehicle
U.S. Patent No. 5,343,970

Cars have evolved into something we thought could never be. With this invention, patented on September 6, 1992, the automobile went to the next level. Hybrid technology introduced a car with two motors—one electric and one gasoline—and have great fuel efficiency. Inventor Alex Severinsky wanted to make a car that was cleaner than the current automobiles on the road. The battery motor runs when the car is at low speeds to prevent the loss of gasoline and less carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. When the speed increases the gas motor kicks in and recharges the battery motor while driving and braking.


Self Powered Electric Vehicle Charging Connector Locking System
U.S. Patent No. 8,025,526

When I was a kid, I plugged in my remote control car to recharge its batteries. Today you can plug in your everyday car. The technology detailed in this patent from September 27, 2011, literally breathed life into an electric car by allowing the car to plug into a house socket or a charging station on city streets. Who would have thought that your cell phone and car could both plug in to the same outlet and be ready for the next day? I know I did not predict that forecast.


Automatic Parallel Parking System
U.S. Patent No. 4,735,274

It would be nice to have that can car park itself and fit without having to try more than once to get into that perfect parking space. Inventor Warren Good and Jacob Vihauer, Jr. decided to make this into a reality and invented a system that would parallel park the car for those is who have trouble with parallel parking (even if we won’t admit it) Published on April 5, 1988 this invention has reduced stress for many a harried driver along a busy city street.


Traffic Light Control for Emergency Vehicles
U.S. Patent No. 4,443,783

Cars have changed a lot, but what about traffic lights? Though it seems hard to improve the basic red, yellow, green system, somebody figured out how to do it. This invention, patented on April 17, 1984, allows emergency vehicles to communicate with traffic signals and clear an intersection ahead of time.


Media Device
U.S. Patent No. D650,355

The days of music being stored on physical devices like CDs and records is almost past. When I think of music, I think of the iPod. Published on December 12, 2011 this design patent is not for the actual functions and utility of the iPod, but rather the ornamental shape of it, which became a hit among new and old users alike.

David S. Jones : Office of Innovation Development

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image divided: on left side is throttle lock invention on right is inventor Paul Ashman and pro bono patent attorney Amy Salmela

Spark of Genius
Philosophy of Innovation

In 2012, one of the first patents  with help from  the Patent Pro Bono Assistance Program was granted, but where is the inventor now?

Paul Ashman learned to ride a bicycle at age six. By high school, he had built a car using old plumbing and junkyard parts in metal shop.

“I've been doing things that I don't officially know how to do and building things I've never built before since I was a little kid,” said Paul, a self-professed “gearhead.”

In college, Paul’s interests in the nontechnical diverted him from a formal engineering education. He ended up receiving a degree in philosophy—critical thinking skills that would influence the way he approached technical problems later in life.   

By the time Paul began operating his own online shop retailing (and later wholesaling) motorcycle parts and accessories, he had already created several motorcycle-related products, but he had never attempted to patent one. That changed when a client asked Paul to create an elegant solution to a common motorcycle problem.

In order to maintain speed on a motorcycle, riders must apply continuous wrist tension to the throttle. “And that's just fine in town, or when it's necessary to change your throttle all the time,” explained Paul, “but when you're out on the highway, it's nothing but a burden. Your wrists can get tired, and you can have circulation trouble in your hands from having to hold the grip so hard for so long.”

Paul created a simple yet effective device called a “throttle lock,” essentially a mechanical cruise control, to maintain constant speeds on motorcycles. He filed a provisional application for patent and, after the allotted year, followed up with a corresponding nonprovisional application and began filing it without an attorney (or “pro se”).

Paul’s story is intertwined with the Patent Pro Bono Program, which connects inventors with volunteer patent attorneys to ensure that no deserving invention goes unpatented for lack of its inventor’s financial resources. The program started as a pilot initiative of LegalCORPS, a volunteer attorney organization in Minnesota, and was subsequently validated and expanded by the America Invents Act of 2011. No sooner had the ink dried on President Obama’s signature when Paul sat down for his first meeting with Amy Salmela, a patent attorney who volunteered to take his case.

“We knew there were many inventors that didn't want to, or couldn't afford to work with an attorney, and therefore were prosecuting their applications pro se and maybe running into challenges,” said Amy. “What we were looking for when we launched were clients that were further along in the process and really needed some help.”

By the time Amy had signed onto the case, Paul’s had more or less completed the application on his own, but Amy helped straighten it out and prepare it for the prosecution ahead.

“Amy totally straightened it out and did what I consider to be the indispensable work, expertise‑wise of dealing  back and forth with the patent examiner.”

The application issued September 25, 2012, as U.S. patent no. 8,272,294.

Today, applicants to the Pro Bono program apply directly online to regional programs that cover one or more states. Applications are screened by the respective programs, who then decide whether to accept the cases. The USPTO provides support and oversight, but each program operates with a degree of autonomy. Since inception, hundreds of inventors have been accepted into various pro bono programs across the country, with dozens of patents issued or receiving a notice of allowance.

As a patent attorney, the motivation for and benefits of working pro bono are easy for Amy to identify.

“It all comes back to access to justice. And if you have inventors that need assistance in prosecuting an application in order to protect their idea and they can't get access to the legal assistance they need because it's complicated or expensive, then that's a lack of access to justice. If we can help folks do that, all the better.”

Amy said Minnesota’s reputation for a strong culture of pro bono legal assistance was also a factor in encouraging her to volunteer.

“A lot of patent attorneys were like me and had never really done any pro bono service because we couldn't find a way to do it in our area of expertise. So, for me, this was fulfilling something that was personally important to me: giving back, providing pro bono service, but doing it in a way that was very much in my wheelhouse.”

Becoming involved in the pro bono program also gave Amy opportunities to network with other attorneys in private practice, not just in Minnesota, but all across the country. For her continued work with the pro bono program, Amy was named one of LegalCORPS Volunteers of the Year for 2014.

Unfortunately, the story of Paul’s throttle lock and the patent he received is not one of financial reward. But it also illustrates the important point that a patent is never a guarantee for success in the marketplace.

“It never occurred to me to go out and do all the outreach and talking to people and doing marketing and glad handing and doing all these things that I see entrepreneurs doing all the time. It was so distasteful to me. I was hoping with the website [the throttle lock] would sell itself. Bottom line: it didn't.”

Paul also explained that a trend in motorcycle development has been to include electronic fuel injection, which makes cruise control a somewhat simple programming matter.

But that doesn’t stop Paul from thinking about his next move or from extrapolating useful knowledge from the case of his throttle lock—an ability acquired, perhaps, from his training in philosophy. The experience taught him a lot  about the patent process, and also about his own approach to innovation and product development.

“You won't be successful if you're not playful, open minded, looking around constantly, all around you for the little piece that might solve a problem. You can't be thinking linearly, and that's where I thrive. I belong on the line between chaos and order.”


Visit the Patent Pro Bono Program on the USPTO website for more information about pro bono assistance. Financial need is one of the requirements to be accepted into a program. For inventors who do not qualify for pro bono but still intend to file for a patent on their own, the Pro Se Assistance Program provides helpful resources and assistance.

Alex Camarota : Office of Innovation Development

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Searching with CPC

One of the first steps toward patenting an invention is to make sure the invention does not already exist.

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Smithsonian and USPTO
events and announcements

March and April

Upcoming events and news in the world of innovation

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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
Lasers, Patents, and Progress
Science Fiction to Science Fact
Patents Pick-5
My Milestone Patents
Spark of Genius
Philosophy of Innovation
Searching with CPC
events and announcements
March and April


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