(This 804th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 27, 2006.)
For many years before his retirement my brother was a metallurgical patent examiner for the U. S. Patent Office in Washington. I once visited his office and met some of the other examiners. I knew my brother as a serious scientist and his colleagues seemed equally invested in their work.
I only recall one patent my brother showed me at that time. It was for a method to create a concave surface in a plastic material as it dried from liquid to solid form. All it involved was rotating the material at a rate determined by the nature of the material and the exact shape desired. The centrifugal force created by turning would have a whirlpool effect creating the desired naturally.
That seemed to me a perfect kind of patent. Ingenious yet simple and, I assume, useful in the particular setting in which the patent applicant worked. The task of my brother and his coworkers was to determine if the idea was original and patentable. I don't recall whether or not this metal-forming merry-go-round passed muster, but I liked it in any case.
Another thing impressed me about the job of patent examining. These people worked under pressure: they were expected to judge a number of patents each month and that may have caused some inappropriate ones to slip through. But I think that more silly patents have been accepted either because the examiners have a sense of humor or they simply cannot believe their eyes.
Because among the creative patents this country has produced, among them such wonderful things as the light bulb, radio and television, the computer chip and various plastics, there have slipped through some not-so-great examples.
For those of you who are interested in this kind of thing, as I am, I recommend to you for end-of-summer reading some of the "List of Crazy Patents" on the website: www.freepatentsonline.com/crazy.html. I will describe some of my favorites from that site. Please understand that each of these real patents required a great deal of effort to develop as the descriptions including careful drawings take up as many as a dozen pages. Also the inventors had to pay substantial fees to seek the patent. (The quotations are from the patent abstracts.
Patent 6637447. Just right for picnics this weekend: "a small umbrella ("Beerbrella") which may be attached to a beverage container in order to shade the beverage container from the direct rays of the sun." To avoid sunburned beer?
Patent 6360693. "An apparatus for use as a toy by an animal, for example a dog, to either fetch carry or chew includes a main section with at least one protrusion extending therefrom that resembles a branch in appearance. The toy is formed of any of a number of materials including rubber, plastic, or wood including wood composites and is solid." This is a patent for a toy stick. Original?
Patent 6826983. "A light bulb changer method and apparatus that contains components that allows for instantly detecting a burned out light, automatically removing the burned out light, and automatically replacing the burned out light with a replacement bulb." Not a bad concept but the complicated apparatus must weigh a hundred pounds and appears to work for just one lamp.
Patent 6837185. "A religious meditation apparatus includes at least two feed receptacles, a feed box formed by walls, a removable sliding plate disposed over the feed box,..." I won't continue because it turns out to be a bird feeder shaped like a church. Is it the bird feeders or the birds who are meditating?
Patent 3216423. An apparatus to assist in the birth of a child by centrifugal force. This is a kind of extension of the metal carousel I described, but you have to see the design of this huge machine to believe anyone would come up with it. Pregnancy is tough enough without having to be whirled around and made seasick in this fashion.
And finally, Patent 6739074. "A tamper resistant institutional shoe and method includes a clear outsole to discourage concealment of contraband in an institutional setting, such as prisons or correctional facilities." Let's hope our Homeland Security People don't get hold of this one.-- Gerry Rising