Sunday, July 15, 2007

Perpetual Motion Patents

The Economist tackles perpetual motion machines in an article appropriately titled "Perptual Nonesense". It should be noted that inventors have been pursuing this dream since the beginning of our patent system. Here's what one patent attorney thought about it a century ago:

"The solution of perpetual motion apparently still captivates those who believe in the possible successful solving of such a machine, though the vain efforts of centuries have done nothing beyond showing failure and the wanton waste of energy and money from its votaries. That this Will-o-the-Wisp is still being pursued is evidenced by the continuous so-called new discoveries which are launched with great regularity as the "Eureka" of some mechanical mind".

Source: The Inventor's Universal Educator by Fred G. Dieterich, Washington, D.C., 1911.

Patent Lens Update

Some exciting news about Patent Lens, one of my favourite patent databases...

Patent Lens now includes bibliographic data and full-text images for Australian A and B docs from 1998 to the present. As far as I can tell, this is about the same coverage as esp@cenet (although country code plus year searches are giving me some very odd results for pre-2002). Patent Lens now covers some 7 million patent documents, including US, European and WIPO.

In another very exciting development, it is now possible to search gene sequences using NCBI's BLAST search software. This very cool and powerful tool allows users to search DNA and amino acid sequences in US patent documents. Definitely check it out. Biochemists and biotechnology researchers will love it.

Unfortunately, Patent Lens still doesn't include IPC classifications, making it virtually impossible to do a focused search by subject matter. You can search IPC codes (and national classifications) against the front page text, but this approach is inaccurate and unreliable. Despite this shortcoming, Patent Lens is still one of the most useful and innovative open-source patent search tools on the web.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Hawaiian Patents

During a recent vacation in Hawaii, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful 'Iolani Palace, the official residence of Hawaiian monarchs in the late 1800s and the only royal residence on U.S. territory. The building was constructed between 1879 and 1882 during the reign of King David Kalakaua (1874-1891). Kalakaua wanted the 'Iolani to showcase the independence and sophistication of the Hawaiian people and spared no expense in its construction. It contains slate from Pennsylvania, Italian marble, the finest Hawaiian wood, and steel columns from San Francisco.

Kalakaua, an "early adopter," was a fan of Thomas Edison, whom he met on a trip to the U.S. in 1881, and equipped the 'Iolani with cutting-edge technology imported from around the world. The 'Iolani was the first royal residence in the world to have modern indoor plumbing, electric lighting and a telephone. Even the doors are outfitted with the latest patented transom-lifters designed by John F. Wollensak of Chicago. (A transom is a hinged window located above a door that can be opened for air circulation.) Each transom-lifter lever was labeled with the "PATD" and the date of the issued patents (I've included the numbers in parantheses): March 11, 1873 (#136,801); March 10, 1874 (#148,538); and July 20, 1880 (#RE9,307).

Kalakuau also equipped his Royal Guards with the latest European and American weapons. In the 'Iolani Barracks located next to the Palace you can view two 12 pounder breech-loading cannons designed by William H. Driggs of Washington, D.C. Commander Driggs (1847-1908) was a ordnance designer for the U.S. Navy who patented many improvements in rapid-fire artillery and ammunition. The 'Iolani cannon bear two patent dates, April 5, 1887 (#360,798) and February 28, 1888 (#378,828).

One of the earliest U.S. patents granted to a resident of Hawaii was issued on August 15, 1876 to William Brede, a resident of Lihue on the island of Kanai, for a new improvement in shaping attachments for engine-lathes (#181,032). After touring the 'Iolani, I reflected on the fact that Hawaii in the 1880s, a remote island nation with a tiny population, was both importing and exporting the latest patented technology.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Inventions on the Silver Screen

I enjoy movies about inventors and the process of invention. Many are fun family movies, such as The Absent Minded Professor and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Others lionize inventors, such as Young Thomas Edison and Edison, the Man, both released in 1940, and Francis Ford Coppolo's 1988 film Tucker: the Man and His Dream. My favourites are films that explore the competitive side of invention. One such film I recently read about is a Japanese movie called Black Test Car directed by Yasuzo Masumura. The movie, which was made in 1962, is about industrial espionage between two car manufacturers vying to build new sports cars.

Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread

The Globe and Mail's popular "Social Studies" column often reports interesting facts about famous inventors and inventions. Today's column include a few lines about the inventor of sliced bread, Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa. Until the late 1920s, virtually all bread was sold in loaves and sliced by hand. Rohwedder's machine rapidly and economically produced symmetrical slices. (US1867377, US1700854, etc.) According to the European Patent Office's esp@cecet patent database, Rohwedder received at least 26 US and Canadian patents related to bread, including one for a bread display rack (US1591357).