Tag Archives: Inventors

Family Entertainment: This “Rube” saw the future and its foibles

San Francisco-born Reuben Garrett Lucius “Rube” Goldberg, an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor, best known for satirical cartoons that depicted complicated devices that performed simple tasks in creatively complex ways.

But Goldberg, born on July 4, 1883, was also a visionary, who saw the impact of personalized communications decades before it occurred. His Forbes cover,“After Color TV: The Future of Home Entertainment,” from March 15, 1967 (below) depicts a family with each member engaged with its own mostly flat screen and targeted content – including the baby and cat. Recall that in 1967 the idea of the color TV, aka “talking furniture,” was still relatively new.

Future Family: Alone Together

Note the types of content, the different screens and the interactive controller used by the father. The baby’s wind-up truck does not have a chance.

The Fun of Getting There

Goldberg is associated with popular cartoons depicting gadgets that perform simple tasks in indirect or complicated but imaginative ways, giving rise to the term “Rube Goldberg machine” for s similar gadget or process. Goldberg received many honors in his lifetime, including a Pulitzer Prize for his political cartooning in 1948.

Goldberg was a founding member and the first president of the National Cartoonists Society, and he is the namesake of the Reuben Award, which the organization awards to the Cartoonist of the Year.

He is the inspiration for various international competitions, known as Rube Goldberg Machine Contests, which challenge participants to make a complicated machine to perform a simple task (kind of the opposite of an invention, which attempts to solve a problem or improve efficiency).

The contest, in which college or high school students build devices to complete a simple task in a minimum of twenty steps in the style of Goldberg, is held throughout the United States, and local winners are eligible to compete in the national contest.

Rube Goldberg reminds us that how a simple problem gets solved can be as fascinating as the solution.

Source: imgur.com

Study finds that black, hispanic and women inventors lack opportunity and role models

Economic hardship and lack of exposure to innovation are preventing minorities, low-income backgrounds and women from becoming inventors. 

Those are the findings of “Lost Einsteins: Innovation and Opportunity in American,” conducted by the Equality of Opportunity Project (EOP). The study was conducted by researchers from Stanford, Harvard, the London School of Economics and MIT.

EOP analyzed the lives of more than one million inventors in the United States to understand the factors that determine who becomes an inventor in America.

“If women, minorities, and children from low-income families invent at the same as high-income white men,” the study concluded, “the innovation rate in America would quadruple.”

Patent Grants vs. Patent Success

Dramatic differences in patent grants do not account for lack of patent success.

The report did not examine reasons for the failure of  “advantaged” inventors – those from better socio-economic background – to establish businesses, generate licenses and otherwise contribute successfully to innovation and technology. This may more likely be a result of weakened IP laws under the American Invents Act and a general lack of support for inventors, including those associated with corporate research departments and research institutions.

The study concluded that children who excelled in math were far more likely to become inventors but that being a math standout was not enough. Only the top students who also came from high-income families had a decent chance of becoming an inventor.

Low-income students who are among the very best math students – those who score in the top 5% of all third graders – are no more likely to become inventors than below-average math students from affluent families.

While minority inventors certainly should be nurtured, the high failure rate of innovators who had the benefit of and privilege raises serious questions about whether financial support and role-models are the only resources bright people from minority groups need to succeed.

The full Intangible Investor, “Minority Inventors ‘Lost,'” in the March IAM magazine, go here

Study documents for the Equal Opportunity Project – including an executive summary, slides and a paper – can be found here

For the summary slides alone, from which the above images were generated, go here.

Image source: equality-of-opportunity.org

IP CloseUp visits were up 81% in 2016, breaking previous record

It was the second record-breaking year in a row for IP CloseUp readership, with 43,946 visits in 2016, an 81% increase from 24,273 in 2015. The previous record increase was 31% in 2015, up from 2014.

The most popular51yeitvgpal post was “Kearns’ son still fuming over wiper blade suit,” with 21,652 views. Other popular posts included “For Samsung charity begins at home, Marshall, TX,” coming in with 5,464.

The Kearns article, detailing his 12-year patent suit with Ford and other auto companies, has generated 31,081 hits since it was originally posted in 2011.

Renewed interest in the Kearns biopic detailing the inventor’s patent suit, “Flash of Genius,” starring Greg Kinnear and Alan Alda, likely stimulated interest in the topic, as well as new obstacles to patent licensing.


Image source: amazon.com; hippajournal.com


Named on 40+ patents chemist sleeps in car on a Brooklyn Street

For more than a year a man slept in his SUV parked on the upscale Park Slope section of Brooklyn.

The man, call him Gene, a Ph.D. and organic chemist who did his post-doctoral work at Columbia, is named on 44 patents. How he found himself in this unenviable position is the subject of an provocative page-one feature today in The New York Times.

By last summer word and rumor were spreading on Fifth Street’s email exchange, ordinarily used for organizing block parties. An unnamed Man Living in His Car on Fifth Street was causing a problem. He was pouring urine from a bedpan onto the curb. The woman fostering his cats learned that he had copied her key. And what about the small children on the block?

Who is this Person?

Neighbors organized and went to bat for Gene, said Caroline Batzdorf, a Fifth Street resident, who said she was gratified by the positive shift in attitudes.

“Some of the people who were literally saying, ‘What’s this person doing on our block?’ are now, ‘Thank God there’s humanity in people,’” she said. “But what if this were a person of a different race? Who didn’t have a Ph.D.? Who someone didn’t know?”

According to New York Times a grant from the National Institutes of Health paid for Gene’s postdoctoral work. At a large (unnamed) pharmaceutical company, he worked with a team on variations of an immunosuppressant, and compounds useful in treating diabetes.

Records list the Boise, Idaho-born chemist as a co-inventor on at least 44 “composition of matter” patents in the United States and Europe. The patents, the article reminds us, are owned by the company.

“Making the Journey from Menace to Neighbor, All on One Brooklyn Block,” can be found here.

Image source: nyt.com; dailycamera.com (person in featured image is not Gene)

“Men of Progress” depicts U.S. inventing’s past, present and future

A group portrait honoring America’s rich invention history captures its greatest inventors in a moment in time that never occurred.  

The painting hangs in the grand, neo-classical National Portrait Gallery in Washington, once home of the United States Patent & Trademark Office. It depicts a symbolic gathering that honors America’s innovative past, while encouraging observers to speculate on its future.

Men of Progress (1862) is a study of how America saw its leading technologists in the 19th century. The romanticized gathering of great minds never took place but was a virtual product of artist Christian Schussele’s imagination and his patron, Jordan Lawrence Mott, that took four years to compile from individual portraits. (This was a century and a half before Photoshop.)

800px-Christian_Schussele_-_Men_of_Progress_-_Google_Art_Project“Men of Progress”

The National Portrait Gallery, a Greek-revival building that was impeccably restored in 2006, housed the United States Patent Office from at least 1867 to 1932. (The official NPG history has the USPTO appearing in 1842, before construction was completed.) Work on the building was started in 1831.

For my account of why Schussele’s vision of America’s visionaries remains timely, please read “Fathers of Invention”in the September IAM Magazine. Both print and digital editions are available.

Necessity and Ego

“If necessity is the mother of invention,” I write in the Intangible Investor, “then ego is the likely father.” The U.S. industrial revolution spawned an innovation age prior to the Civil War that helped to transform the United States from a wannabe nation to one of greatness.

“In 1857 the inventor of a coal-burning stove, Jordan Mott, commissioned Alsace-born portraitist Christian Schussele to paint a group portrait of 19 U.S. scientists and inventors who ‘had altered the course of contemporary civilization’”.

Those depicted in the portrait had never met as a group. The artist sketched separate studies of each subject before combing them in his final, formal composition. Image altering software would have made it easier, but that was some 140 years in the future.

The subjects’ eyes in the portrait are never fixed on each other or the artist, as if to distinguish each inventor’s singular vision.

Fathers of Invention

The following list identifies the inventors and their primary contributions, starting from the left side (The Father of the Fathers of Invention, Benjamin Franklin, hovers on the wall in the background):

Dr. William Thomas Green Morton: surgical anesthesia
James Bogardus: cast-iron construction
Samuel Colt: revolving pistol
Cyrus Hall McCormick: mechanical reaper
Joseph Saxton: coal-burning stove, hydrometer, ever-pointed pencil
Charles Goodyear: vulcanization of rubber
Peter Cooper: railway locomotive
Jordan Lawrence Mott: coal-burning cooking stove
Joseph Henry: electromagnet design
Eliphalet Nott: efficient heat conduction for stoves and steam engines
John Ericsson: armored turret warship
Frederick Sickels: steam-engine gear and steering device for ships
Samuel F. B. Morse: electric telegraph
Henry Burden: horseshoe manufacturing machine
Richard March: rotary press
Erastus Bigelow: power loom for carpets
Isaiah Jennings: threshing machine, repeating gun, friction match
Thomas Blanchard: irregular turning lathe
Elias Howe: sewing machine


I encourage those visiting Washington – students, tourists, inventors, government workers, IP holders and anyone interested in the rich innovation history of the U.S. – to stop by the National Portrait Gallery and take in this inspiring portrait. Admission is free.


Image source: commons.wikimedia.org; Edward Sachse & Co., chromolithograph, c. 1857.

Pandora Suit Against ASCAP May Portend Future for Inventors as well as Songwriters

The royalties guaranteed to songwriters for playing their work on radio, television, and in restaurants and retail establishments are being threatened by a law suit filed by the streaming media service, Pandora, against ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Pandora contends that the century-old royalty scheme governed by a Department of Justice consent decree is outdated. ASCAP says the new technology company is trying to marginalize the songwriters and publishers, effectively cutting them out of any significant revenue streams from listener plays.

The New York Times reports that the wider music world has been galvanized by the issue of the low royalties paid by fast growing streaming media companies. (See “Pandora Suit May Upend Century-Old Royalty Plan.”)

In 2012 when songwriters protested on Capitol Hill, “five writers of hits by stars like Beyoncé and Christina Aquilera showed that 33 million plays of their songs on Pandora yielded just $587.39 in royalties for them.”

pandora2-580x300For record labels and recording artists without negotiating leverage the situation is not much better. (See “Patent Holders can Learn from Angry Musician’s File Sharing Fight” in IP CloseUp.

Clear Warning

The warning for inventors and other patent holders is clear: Content providers and new tech distribution and delivery platforms, including social media, are interested in accessing the widest range of and best quality content for the lowest price. Many have an inherent disrespect for authorship and the unauthorized use of inventions by many companies, already poorly monitored and infrequently enforced, is not likely to improve.

With demand for innovation exploding tech companies are no longer able to generate internally all that they need to compete. Like streaming media companies, these businesses are hungry for ideas and motivated by access to as much innovation as possible for the lowest price (or no price). Often, they have established the distribution channels, brand recognition and capital to achieve success without having to pay licensing fees. This leaves many innovators out in the cold. Clearing houses, like publishing societies established, play an important role in generating respect for songwriters’ work.

ASCAP and BMI, music rights clearing houses establish by consent decree, have done a good job at monitoring the use of their members’ work and making certain that they are paid. For patent holders there has been no watchdog, and unauthorized use of inventions, despite NPEs, is likely to remain widespread.

Industry-Established Royalties?

With ASACPA and BMI possibly losing more ground to new media it will be interesting to see if businesses that petition_sitebanneruse the innovation rights of others, including independent inventors, SMEs and universities, will ever agree to pay industry-established royalties unless they are forced to.

Once the technology for tracking patent holders’ rights is as ubiquitous as that for monitoring music airplay, I suspect that many of those who are involved in invention disputes will want to find new ways to resolve the majority of them faster.

For now, it remains to be seen what will be learned by patent holders and lawmakers from businesses’ latest attempt to circumvent content providers.

Image source: entertainmentmanagementonline.com

UK Inventor Burns: Torches Patent He Can’t Afford to Use

The High Cost of Enforcement Compels Him to Destroy His Rights Before Parliament

Without the funds to enforce a patent it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

We’ve all heard that before. But never was this more dramatically illustrated as when UK inventor, Michael Wilcox, recently set fire to his patent for an innovative color printing technology in front of Parliament in London.

In a symbolic act of defiance Wilcox torched the rights to what he had created, spending 150,000 GBP of his own money and  100,000 of the government’s. He knew that even if he caught infringers red-handed, he could not afford to face them in court. They get a free ride; he gets a goose egg.

Sad Story

This is a sad story that should have gotten much more play than it did.

I’ve said for years that “a patent holder can’t dial 911 and say ‘Arrest that man. He’s infringing my patent.'” Those who violate copyrights, at least, can face criminal charges. The onus of proving patent infringement is on the holder, and frequently the cost is simply too high.

I thought I would write something about the Wilcox public “execution” but Patrick Anderson at the excellent Gametime IP beat me to it. Patrick did such a fine job or reporting and tying SME abuse to what is happening in the US after the dubious America Invents Act, I am just going to link to his post and let you read it first hand.

I will add that Wilcox’s symbolic act of defiance hopefully dramatizes the patent system’s actual as opposed to imagined failings and abusers. Be sure to read The Telegraph story at the end or Patrick’s post.

While at first glance the patent burning may appear to be little more than a bit of street theater, it conveys a timely story. SMEs and inventors give up on patents on a massive scale, much to the delight of infringers, many of whom are large high-tech companies that can well afford to keep the costs of protracted litigation high.

Said a technology broker to The Telegraph: “Patenting without a realistic threat of prosecution is a toothless tiger.”

Image source: telegraph.co.uk

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