As a boy interested in science, I read voraciously on the topic. To this day, I can still see the images of the pages in books that taught me about the great men of science and technology. Thomas Edison, I learned, was the king of inventors, with more patents than anyone else. His inventions also are tops when it comes to everyday impact. Electric light is at the foundation of modern life. Edison, as young boys both before and after me learned, was the most prolific inventor, racking up 1,084 U.S. patents. In July of 2015, the 1,085 U.S. patent was granted to Lowell Lincoln Wood Jr. Edison was dethroned and the fact I have carried for decades is no longer a fact.
I didn't actually comprehend Edison’s, now Wood’s, achievement when I was a boy. I didn’t really understand what a patent meant. I thought, incorrectly, that if
you had a great idea, you got a patent. I must have construed that there was some kind of patent elf that, like Santa, watched over the world who gave out patents. I couldn't have been more wrong. I’ve patented inventions. I’ve led the patenting efforts on several projects. I have been responsible for intellectual capital management for both technology areas and organizations within my employer. Patents are a lot of work.
There are many misconceptions about patents. I was fortunate to have good teachers to teach me about IP law. I learned early in my career that patents actually don’t give you the right to make something, only the right to stop others from using your patent in their manufacturing. To spur commerce, the government grants a monopoly period to an inventor. After the patent expires, no more monopoly. The government only grants patents after you apply for one. Many times you have to argue with the government to get them to grant you a patent. A jolly old elf giving out patents might be an improvement.
I have surely read more than my fair share of patents. I’ve read thousands of patents. I have worked on right to practice opinions, reading and explaining complexities to patent counsel. I have done analysis and mapping of technology areas. Most patents aren’t fun reading, but there are certainly exceptions. The work of Russell Morris Selevan, in particular, is both memorable and fun.
I am actually in awe of Russell Morris Selevan though I have never met him, have never seen a picture of him, and actually know very little about him. It is through a single invention that I know of Russell Morris Selevan, and it is an invention that leaves me in awe. It is a beautiful piece of work. I wish I had thought of it. To a certain degree, it pains me that Ididn't think of it. It is one of those perfect inventions that, once you see it, is obvious, but no one else thought of it. I clearly hadn’t thought of it.
You can’t patent something that is already known or is obvious. Many patents are for the assembly of something useful and new made by combining well known pieces. Assembling three well known technologies to create a new invention is how Russell Morris Selevan got his patent. In putting three technologies together, he created something far greater than the sum of the parts. I was well acquainted with the three technologies, and fully recognized the problem his invention solved. I am still kicking myself for not making the connection.
Russell Morris Selevan assembled three main components in a way that is shear elegance. I actually saw Russell Morris Selevan’s invention of a store shelf, emblazoned with the patent number. I slapped myself on the forehead when I first saw the invention because I hadn’t thought of it. I knew about all the components. I have a Ther-A-Rest® mattress. This is a self-inflating mattress that compresses to almost nothing for backpacking. Open a valve and the foam inside puffs it up, inflating it with no pump or lung power needed. I am well aware of check valves from exposure to hydraulic, pneumatic and laboratory systems. I know how check valves only allow gas to flow in one direction.
What caused me to slap my forehead in the store was the perfection of Russell Morris Selevan’s coupling of a foam core and a check valve with a third component that I also knew well. I knew all I needed to know, yet the inventive moment that came to Russell Morris Selevan eluded me. By combining a piece of compressible foam, a check valve to allow self-inflation, and a whoopee cushion, U.S patent 6,331,131 granted to Russell Morris is for the "Self inflating noise maker”. Russell Morris Selevan invented the self-inflating whoopee cushion.
Other patents, and especially patent drawings, have made me smile. US 20050064789, US 3,216,423, US 6,473,908, US 5,971,829 A, US 7,255,627 and US 7,745,197 all made me smile. Share your favorites.
Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990.
He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.