Inventors Eye


Futuristic collage of an android man looking through a pair of virtual reality glasses.

Innovation by the Millions

Scientific inventions and discoveries have advanced civilizations from time immemorial. The long trajectory of patents in the United States is a story both timeless and ever-evolving.

The American Founding Fathers regarded innovation so highly that they laid the foundation for a patent system without debate in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which grants “Inventors the exclusive Right to their… discoveries.” In the first two years following the Patent Act of 1790, 36 patents were issued. Today, 225 years after the enactment of the first Patent Act, over 9 million U.S. utility patents have been granted.

The current patent numbering system began in 1836, and every patent issued since is a continuance of this line. Some 10,000 patents were granted prior to instituting the numbering system. If the number assigned to each patent marks a sequential record, the ones assigned with six zeroes on the end are often given some extra notice. It’s kind of like the odometer in your car turning to the next 10,000 miles. Each millionth patent is a testament to the progress of science and technology.

The first-millionth patent was granted to Francis Holton on August 8, 1911, for developing an improvement to traditional air-filled tires. Holton claimed an alternative: tires that were solid at the core and surrounded by flexible material. Issuing the first-millionth patent was a substantial moment in patent law. The New York Times even devoted a full page to the celebratory moment in American history.

Nearly a quarter century later, transportation and shipping by rail was omnipresent. As advancements in speed made railroads more efficient, safety advancements became necessary. Joseph Ledwinka, received the two-millionth patent on April 30, 1935, for an improvement where tires were mechanically secured to the rim to prevent slippage or other relative movements between the tire and wheels during acceleration and deceleration.

A lull in patenting occurred during World War II but began to pick up in the Atomic Age. Before computers evolved to perform all the amazing tasks users have grown accustomed to, they were primarily used as data processing machines. Data-processing machines represented a leap for innovation, but they also had major problems. Because the machines did not interpret data using human language, the data had to be transcribed in a form the machine could understand. The human element of the process caused errors. Kenneth Eldredge received the three-millionth patent on September 12, 1961, for an apparatus that solved this problem by allowing machines to read human language.

Fifteen years later, environmentally conscious citizens were becoming familiar with paper, plastic, and glass recycling. On December 28, 1976, Robert Mendenhall made a substantial contribution to the recycling industry when he received the four-millionth patent for a method for recycling the most unlikely material: asphalt.

Ethanol is found in a variety of commonly used products from libations to gasoline. By the early 1990s, an increased demand for ethanol had driven development of innovative production methods. The inventors of the five-millionth patent, granted on March 19, 1991, engineered a strain of E. coli bacteria to break down wood, whey, plants, and other biomass to produce ethanol.

It didn’t take long for inventors of the six-millionth patent to seize an opportunity created by society’s reliance on handheld devices. As more day-to-day tasks, such as maintaining to-do lists, address lists, and calendars became electronic, it became necessary to access information on the go. This patent was granted on December 7, 1999, for a synchronization method and apparatus to transfer information between computer devices such as desktop and handheld computer systems.

Civilizations around the world have used the cotton plant for over seven centuries. Cotton fibers, which are about 90 percent cellulose, are used to construct mediums of expression and basic clothing fabric. On February 14, 2006, John O’Brian was granted the seven-millionth patent for inventing polysaccharide fibers that mimic the quality of cotton. The invention frees textile manufacturers from relying on the seasonal harvest of cotton plants.

Scientists have conducted experiments with electrical stimulation of visual perception since the 1700s, and the inventors who received the eight-millionth patent on August 16, 2011, carried that torch into the 21st century with a new type of visual prosthesis. The patent claims an apparatus that includes a camera, video processing unit, and retinal stimulation system. The patent also claims a method for limiting the power consumption of the visual apparatus.

Drivers are often annoyed by splattered insects that may impede their vision while behind the wheel. To clear the windshield, most drivers employ windshield wipers and fluid. Likewise, in the winter, wiper fluid is used frequently to thaw snow and ice or clean salt from windshields. This all quickly depletes the washer fluid. But what if you never had to replace it? What if wiper fluid could be replenished by snow or rain? Matthew Carroll, granted the nine-millionth patent on April 7, 2015, invented the Windshield Washer Conditioner to do just that. The invention claims a system that collects and conditions rainwater before replenishing the washer fluid reservoir in an automobile.

One can only imagine how far innovation will progress before the next millionth patent issues. Better hurry up with that thought, because the future will be here before we know it!


Tynishia Williams : Office of Innovation Development Extern

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Screen shot of the Pro Se Assistance Program homepage.

Pro Se Update

Since October 2014, the Pro Se Assistance Program has provided inventors and entrepreneurs with critical information and assistance. Read on to learn what the program has to offer and success stories of inventors who have used it.

The Pro Se Assistance Program is a pilot program launched in response to a White House initiative to “bring about greater transparency to the patent system and level the playing field for innovators.” The program Web page contains a slate of resources, including an informational video, a checklist of the basic components of a nonprovisional utility patent application, and links to other information and resources on the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website.          

Users are able to interact with Pro Se Program representatives through a variety of channels: over the phone, by email, or even in-person during a pre-scheduled walk-in appointment. As the pilot approaches its first full year in operation, the amount of assistance it provides inventors filing for patents without an attorney (known as “pro se” applicants) increases steadily.

To date, Pro Se Program representatives have answered thousands of phone calls and responded to hundreds of emails and letters. At the USPTO headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, program representatives provide direct assistance to dozens of inventors and entrepreneurs every week. Many walk-in customers are in the pre-filing stages of their patent application. The opportunity to sit down one-on-one with a pro se representative and discuss the requirements and components of a patent application has proven to be a great benefit for both applicants and the USPTO. Applicants leave with a better understanding of the process and filing requirements, as well as a packet of all the necessary forms. They also are able and encouraged to contact the same representatives later if they have follow-up questions. Well-equipped applicants such as these are likely to submit applications that are compliant with statute, potentially resulting in a more efficient examination and a higher quality patent.  

All pro se applicants, from those just starting out to those that may have questions about a notice they received or want to confirm the forms they are sending, can benefit from the Pro Se Assistance Program. In some cases, inventors have not yet filed for a patent and are looking for guidance on filing an application. The program is staffed by experienced primary examiners who specialize in pro se applications. Additional customer service is provided by representatives from the Office of Innovation Development, which oversees the program.

Success stories of inventors who have used the program stream in on a daily basis. Take Jerry,* for example, who had an application stuck in the pre-examination pipeline and had received two notices that he hadn’t completed a form properly. The Pro Se Assistance Program helped Jerry, who is elderly, understand the deficiencies and how to correct them. His application finished processing and has now been assigned to an examiner.

Sylvia,* a walk-in customer who had driven down to the USPTO from New York City, wanted to file a provisional application for a patent right away. The problem was Sylvia had not yet done a prior art search or completed a specification of her invention. After an in-depth meeting with a Pro Se representative who explained the process with her, Sylvia decided to stay overnight in Alexandria, Virginia, and work on her application. She returned the next day ready to file a completed provisional application. Sylvia recently contacted the Pro Se Program with the news that she is ready to file a corresponding nonprovisional application on her invention.

It is stories like these that show the importance of the Pro Se Assistance Program. The words of one Pro Se customer say it best: “Working on a nonprovisional application can be challenging. However, with the help of Pro Se, people like me have the chance to bring our ideas to life. I now have the opportunity to fix missing parts in my application. I am thankful for that, and these services should continue in order to maintain the flow of ideas that will continue to create jobs here in the United States. Thanks again!”


*Name changed to protect privacy

Alex Camarota : Office of Innovation Development

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Jennifer Briggs and her invention, the DrainWig.

Spark of Genius
A Tangled Dream

Free couples counseling doesn’t sound like a pitch for a drain cleaning product, but that’s exactly what one inventor has been told her device provides—in addition to getting a dirty job done.

“You don’t even realize what my wife’s long hair does to our marriage!”—it’s a variation on a theme Jennifer Briggs, Inventor of the DrainWig, has heard many times.

“They say, ‘I love her hair, but I hate it in the shower,’” said Jennifer.

A long-haired wife herself, Jennifer explained how “Couples argue over whose job it is to clean the drain.” According to her, the DrainWig, a small device that collects hair and is easily removed and disposed, saves people the conflict over deciding who has the unpleasant task of unclogging the drain.

“You don’t realize the psychological aspect to DrainWig until you experience it,” said Jennifer.

But that’s the way these simple, yet life-changing, inventions affect people’s lives.

Jennifer’s inspiration for the DrainWig came one day as she stood in the shower and looked down at a massive wad of hair dangling in the drain. After calling in her husband, Gifford, and telling him she thought there was a “gopher in the drain,” they did some investigating. Gifford ran to the garage for his tools, and together they unscrewed the drain cover and pulled out what was inside.

“I’m one of those crazy people who floss in the shower,” said Jennifer, which explains how a piece of floss had become snagged on the drain cover.

When they pulled it out, there was a huge tangle of hair hanging from the floss. At first they were confused. How could hair stick to a strand of dental floss? Then they got curious. They tied another piece of floss to the drain and after months of experimenting they discovered that as the hair entered the drain it actually floated on top of the water in the p-trap and then twisted and tangled the hair around the piece of floss.

As a mother of five girls, finding any solution to help with clogged drains was a win for Jennifer. Recognizing that she had a potentially game-changing idea that needed further development, for the next year Jennifer and her family created and tested different prototypes, running into a few problems along the way.

Tying floss to the shower drain cover meant they had to unscrew it every time they replaced the floss. Inevitably a screw would roll down the drain, which meant more hassles and a trip to the hardware store. By tying the floss to a black ring washer, it could sit on top of the drain, but it wasn’t ideal.

“Every time I got into the shower, I thought it was a bug,” said Jennifer.

The solution showed itself one day while Jennifer was looking at her earrings. They were shaped like flowers.

“Let’s make a product that’s attractive and practical,” thought Jennifer.

Thus was born the plastic daisy that holds the DrainWig in place over the shower drain.

Another problem they came across was that the hair would slip down the floss when they tried to pull it up through the drain. They needed to anchor the hair somehow. Jennifer’s children had some balls that had rubber whiskers all over them, which she noticed always collected hair and dirt. So they tore apart one of the balls and tied the whiskers along a chain at different intervals. Now the hair would tangled all along the chain, making it easier to pull through the drain cover.

In all, Jennifer said they made about a dozen different prototypes the first year.

“Looking back, we have to laugh at our first prototypes. But that’s what led us to the final product solution.”

Jennifer and Gifford received U.S. patent number 8,910,322 on December 16, 2014.

“When my husband called to tell me ‘We got it,’ I cried,” she said.  “As a stay-at-home mom without the resources of a large corporation, I finally felt a sense of security once we received our patent. That is when the investors started taking the DrainWig seriously.”

With patent in hand, Jennifer “felt a weight off my shoulders.”

Throughout her journey bringing the DrainWig to market, Jennifer has attended conferences and tradeshows and grown more confident speaking in public. In fact, she loves talking with others about her product.

While attending many conferences and tradeshows, Jennifer learned to really listen to the comments she was receiving about her product. Carrying a notebook around with her, she wrote down everything, positive or negative. Talking with people helped her improve the product, from changing the original name, to making it a disposable product that people can just get rid of instead of touching the disgusting hair. All the advice and criticism she received helped her product succeed and get to where she is today. She even won first prize in a new product category contest her husband signed her up for during a Las Vegas international tradeshow.

DrainWig is currently licensed to a direct-response company that aims to get the product into major retailers. But that’s not the only future Jennifer hopes for her invention.

“So many people have helped my husband and me along the way,” Jennifer said. “Being able to give back, helping other people, and creating jobs for others some day is my dream.”

She especially desires to be able to help other women who haven’t had the same opportunities as her.

“There are so many women I know—divorced, single, abused—that I would love to give a job to, help them get on their feet, and help bring them happiness. That means more to me than money. My husband and I would be happy forever if we could do that.”

Jennifer’s advice for other inventors is simple: “A good patent lawyer makes all the difference.” Also, “Have an open mind and be open to what people suggest. The consumer ultimately tells you if you have something good or not.”

For now, Jennifer is looking forward to the future of DrainWig with her family beside her.

“It’s been a life changing experience, one I would do all over again and wouldn’t change a thing.”

Messina Smith : Office of Innovation Development

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U.S. Patent No. 8,283,794. Floor suitable for generating, converting and/or storing energy.

Patents Pick-5
The Promise of Innovation
Renewable Energy Patents

“Everything you can imagine,” Picasso once said, “is real.” Fueled by the desire to push the envelope of innovation, the inventors in our latest edition of Patents Pick-5 have attempted to craft reality by way of their imagination. These patents detail renewable energy technologies that try to lessen the burden on the planet in unexpected ways.

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 Office of Innovation Development Extern André Palerm-Colón.

U.S. Patent No. 7,270,295
Solar Thermal Aircraft

The summer of 1990 is a milestone in American aviation. It marked the first time a solar-powered plane flew across America, a trip that appropriately ended on a landing strip not far from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903. We live in exciting times for renewable energy transportation, and innovation promises new frontiers in the coming years. That’s what U.S. patent no. 7,270,295 represents: ideas taking flight.

U.S. Patent No. 8,994,224
Solar Roof Shingles and Underlayment with Wireless Power Transfer

“Renewable energy with curb appeal”—that’s what some are calling the millions of solar shingles being installed across the nation at a rapid pace. Solar shingles are becoming increasingly attractive due to their seamless appearance and enticing tax breaks. And because they generate electricity whenever the sun is shining, solar shingles can potentially produce more energy than needed, allowing you to sell unused watts back to the local utility for a credit. The solar roof shingles on U.S. patent no. 8,994,224 are for the tech-savvy; they have individual wireless resonators that transfer power from the shingles to the underlayment.

U.S. Patent No. 8,330,296
Hybrid Renewable Energy Turbine Using Wind and Solar Power

In Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote, the delusional knight-errant title character tangles with windmills that he imagines to be giants. A battle against U.S. patent no. 8,330,296 would have been the loftiest of Don Quixote’s quests, even with the help of his loyal squire, Sancho Panza. This green energy tower comprises both a wind turbine and a solar photovoltaic material covering the surface area of the turbine’s body.

U.S. Patent No. 3,876,925
Wind Turbine Driven Generator to Recharge Batteries in Electric Vehicles

Marty McFly would be jealous of the automobile featured in the drawings for U.S. Patent 3,876,925. This 1970s patent is for a wind turbine-driven generator that recharges automobile batteries. The invention never really took off.

U.S. Patent No. 8,283,794
Floor Suitable for Generating, Converting and/or Storing Energy

Now you can really light up the dance floor! The piezoelectric sensors detailed in U.S. patent no. 8,283,794 capture the kinetic energy produced by people dancing to light up the floor’s LED and create a disco atmosphere. The more people dance, the more the floor lights up! And what about energy-generating roads, or sidewalks? Seems like a bright idea!


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Track One Prioritized Examination

Prioritized Examination Popular with Small and Micro Entities

Independent inventors are increasingly taking advantage of a service that puts their patent applications in the examination fast lane.

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Commissioner for Patents Drew Hirshfeld
events and announcements

August and September

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
Innovation by the Millions
Pro Se Update
Spark of Genius
A Tangled Dream
Patents Pick-5
The Promise of Innovation
Prioritized Examination Popular with Small and Micro Entities
events and announcements
August and September


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