Burying the Past | Metropolis Magazine | November 2002

Burying the Past | Metropolis Magazine | November 2002:

"Since October 2001 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has thrown out nearly 50 percent of its examiner collections of patents dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Three things are being lost: a filing system, a specialized drafting technique, and a historical record of invention. And the history of an entire design medium is being destroyed."

"The patent examiner's former classification system contained almost 500 classes of technology, each with hundreds of subdivisions. It allowed researchers to easily learn the history of a patent and compare it to other similar designs. "Seldom does an invention come along that is as out of the blue as the first lightbulb, or electric motor, or laser," Rabin says. "Most are incremental improvements that fit in or between other similar patents. Being able to quickly span a decade or so of similar work in a matter of an hour provides an inventor a context and history he can't find anywhere else, and usually results in a better invention."

Unfortunately the computer system that will replace the paper library functions much the way a search engine does on the Web. Rabin explains, "You fish around with some selected words and hope the patent you are seeking (the one that may mean trouble for your invention) has the same words that you have chosen to look for it." If a match doesn't come up, a researcher is out of luck.

Three-quarters of the pate
nts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century contained beautifully lithographed drawings made by artisans that specialized in patent drafting; now their work is vanishing from public view forever. Beyond the delicate line quality and light and shade on display in, for example, Edison's 1893 patent for the Electric Locomotive (a recycling bin find), some of the patents, like R. S. Kibler's Continuously Variable Transmission, from 1936, were meticulously colored. The USPTO keeps a complete set of pristine patent drawings in the very same Iron Mountain facility as Corbis's collections. But the patent examiner's collection was a working one. Generations of examiners have added notes, new findings, and thoughts to the patent sheets, often in handwriting that can be dated by the style of its scrawl. This enabled each new examiner to see what his past colleagues thought of the invention, providing an invaluable picture of patent history. The black-and-white low-resolution scans available online at www.uspto.gov omit not only those notes (now lost forever) but the sheer beauty of the line quality, color, depth, and shade of the drawings.

"To save everything would," Rabin says glumly, "take a K-Mart"--about 75,000 square feet--to house the 6.5 million patents, which average 16 pages each. But he is doing his part via www.edisonsark.org, a Web site that includes color scans of the patents he has found, thus at least preserving the documents as they should be seen. For Rabin "the dilemma is how to preserve these patents and show what's being lost."

Iron Mountain

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