August's featured article
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!