Friday, March 25, 2011

The Dawn of Electronic Computing

On March 25, 1946, a project to build a computer called ENIAC was finished by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The contract to build ENIAC was intiated by the US Army under the Codename "Project PX" and was classified "Top Secret."
It was not the first ever computer but ENIAC is re...garded as the first successful, general digital computer, a "Turing machine," capable of being programmed for any task.
ENIAC weighed over 27,000 kg (60,000 lb), and contained more than 18,000 vacuum tubes - "valves" that were used as switches, replacing the mechanical relays of previous computers. It took six technicians working full time to test and replace 2000 of the tubes each month.
In 1948, a major upgrade was made to allow data transfer to be done independently of calculation. This simplified programming and increased the speed considerably - so that an artillery shell trajectory could be calculated in about 30 seconds - half the actual flight time of the shell.
ENIAC was transferred to the Aberdeen Proving Ground, where it was in continuous operation until it was finally shut down at 11:45 p.m. on October 2, 1955.
So it goes.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The First Patent Law

On March 19, 1474 the world’s first patent law was enacted in Venice.  That law granted patent protection, the right to exclude others from making, selling or using an invention, for 10 years.   Like the patent laws that came after it, the law was introduced to attract inventors and investors to Venice who would create new economic activities there.  

What is remarkable about this law is that, even though it is brief, it contains most of the elements of modern patent laws.  And the genius of it was that it cost the government nothing.  Here is what it said:

“There are in this city and also there come temporarily… men from different places1 and most clever minds, capable of devising and inventing all manner of ingenious contrivances.  And should it be provided, that the works and contrivances invented by them, others having seen them should not take their honor, men of such kind would exert their minds, [and] invent and make things which would be of no small utility and benefit our State2

Therefore… each person who will make in this city any new and ingenious contrivance, not made heretofore in our dominion3, as soon as it is reduced to perfection4, so that it can be used and exercised5, shall give notice of the same6…  It being forbidden to any other in any territory and place of ours to make any other contrivance in the form and resemblance thereof 7, without the consent of the author up to ten years8.  And, however, should anybody make it, the aforesaid author and inventor will have the liberty to cite him before any office of this city9, by which office the aforesaid who shall infringe be forced to pay him the sum of one hundred ducats10 [about $7,000 in today's money] and the [infringing] contrivance be immediately destroyed11.  Our government shall be at liberty to take and use in his need any of said contrivances, provided that no others than the authors shall exercise them12.”*

And here are the elements contained in many modern patent laws:

1.     Rights not limited to residents.
2.     Societal benefit in exchange for the grant of exclusivity.
3.     Invention must be novel within the city.
4.     Reduction to practice.
5.     The invention must be enabled.
6.     Disclosure of the invention is a condition of exclusivity.
7.     Infringement includes equivalents.
8.     A fixed term of protection (10 years) is provided.
9.     Infringement action before administrative (not criminal) bodies is provided.
10.  Damage award for infringement is prescribed.
11.  Infringing goods must be confiscated and destroyed.
12.  Eminent domain of intellectual property is limited to supply by inventor.

England followed with the Statute of Monopolies in 1623 under King James I, which declared that patents could only be granted for “projects of new invention.”  

In 1789, Article I, section 8 of the United States Constitution explicitly authorized patent laws in the United States “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”

Do you have an invention?  We can help patent it for you.  See our web site at  

*Adapted from "Patents for Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology" by Philip W. Grubb, pp. 10-11, Oxford University Press, (1999).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Can You Patent "Something For Nothing?"

Section 101 of the U.S. Patent Act seems simple enough. You can patent a “new and useful” process, machine, article of manufacture or improvements of these things. But the invention has to be “new” and it has to be “useful.” Now, for the invention to be new, two other parts of the statute apply. In 35 USC §102, we have all of the requirements for novelty. And in 35 USC §103, the requirement for non obviousness is promulgated. We’ll discuss those at a later time.

But it might be fun to discuss what it means to be “useful.” How about a machine that gives us more energy output than we put in? How about a perpetual motion machine?

Now, something that can't possibly work, such as a perpetual motion machine, is arguably not very useful. So, in theory, one should not be able to obtain a patent on such a device. But right now, there are at least 8 issued U.S. patents, apparently still in force, that describe what appear to be perpetual motion machines.

For example, in U.S. Patent 7,379,286 "Quantum vacuum energy extraction", issued on May 27, 2008, we read “When atoms enter into suitable micro Casimir cavities a decrease in the orbital energies of electrons in atoms will thus occur. Such energy will be captured in the claimed devices. Upon emergence form [sic] such micro Casimir cavities the atoms will be re-energized by the ambient electromagnetic quantum vacuum.” It certainly looks like we’re getting energy for free. But how are the atoms “re-energized by the ambient electromagnetic quantum vacuum?” Where does that energy come from? The patent states that the “process is also consistent with the conservation of energy in that all usable energy does come at the expense of the energy content of the electromagnetic quantum vacuum." Good!

Now, there is a lot of fancy talk about “zero-point-energy,” “Casimir cavities” and “a supply of fluid characterized by its ability to… take in electromagnetic radiation from the ambient surroundings.” What “fluid” would not do that? Anyway, even though we have no idea what all that means, there is something about it that doesn’t seem quite right. This is an issued patent that describes a device that is supposed to give us energy for nothing.  And all we have to do is to harvest that energy from the "electromagnetic quantum vacuum."  The examiner allowed this patent on first action without even considering that this device might not work as claimed.

You might be able to spot some perpetual motion patents. Look for phrases like “zero-point energy,” or in the claims for “alternator and electric motor work in combination,” or “spring driven apparatus which, in essence, feeds upon itself,” or “all of the flux from a permanent magnet” (all???) in combination with “enable useful work,” or, a favorite, “A chamber with a partition which lets gas molecules flow one way and not the other.” Or maybe you can find your own.

Have fun!