Working in a 10-by-15-foot office identical to hundreds of others in the vast federal complex that is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office [USPTO] in Alexandria, examiner Russell Stormer has more work than he can handle. The agency received about 349 wheel and axle patent applications last year. Stormer reviews 124 annually and typically approves patents for about 90 [90/124 = 72.6%]. Because it takes an average of two years to process an application, there is always a backlog awaiting evaluation.
Stormer and the other 4,800 examiners at the PTO are key cogs in the U.S. economic machine, because patenting an idea is the first step in trying to turn it into a commercially viable product. Technological progress also depends on the patent system. Would-be innovators routinely dip into the public records for the specifications of patented ideas as they try to figure out ways to improve upon a device.
There is so much work that the thousands of examiners at the agency's new five-building campus near the King Street Metro station cannot keep up. Inventors submitted 390,000 patent applications last year, contributing to a backlog of 600,000 applications that are "sitting on a shelf, waiting to be touched by an examiner," said Brigid Quinn, an agency spokeswoman.
There was the 1943 design for a wheel whose tire was made of rope rather than rubber, a commodity in short supply during World War II. [Recall post on Standard Oil of New Jersey, I.G. Farben, and buna rubber] More recent were applications seeking to capitalize on the current fad of "spinners," the eye-catching wheel adornments that continue spinning even when the car stops.
Stormer, his white shirt sleeves rolled midway up his forearms, reached into a pile of papers to retrieve one of his recent favorites, a patent application for a car wheel featuring a working clock affixed to where the hub cap normally is. As the wheel rotates, the clock remains upright, providing a glimpse of the time to curious onlookers but not, presumably, to the driver.