Friday, May 27, 2005

Hosteny explaining US 6,206,000 on canine scuba

In the May 2005 issue of Intellectual Property Today (pp. 28-29), patent attorney Joseph Hosteny explains US 6,206,000 (Canine Scuba Diving Apparatus; application by Hosteny)in light of its appearance in the book "Patently Ridiculous," and thereby in a book review in the New York Times (March 21, 2005).

John Strausbaugh of the Times placed this patent in the category of "chindogu," (weird tools), contextually meaning a superfluous patent granted by the USPTO. Another example might be the swing patent or the sealed, crustless sandwich patent. On April 22, 2005 in Stevenson, Washington, Cecil Quillen argued that the USPTO granted too many patents, and this one might have been a poster child for Quillen's argument.

As such, it is worthwhile experience to see how Hosteny defends his exercise in application drafting within the IPT article, titled "In Favor of Brainstorming."

One caveat about his reference to the Wright Brothers. When the application of the Wright Brothers was drafted (incidentally, by the Wright Brothers themselves), they had NOT achieved powered flight (which occurred Dec. 17, 1903). The application, and subsequent patent, were directed to three-dimensional control of an aircraft, and that system worked pretty well. The Wrights believed once control was achieved everything else would easily follow.

[As an aside, there is a different mistake about the Wright Brothers in the National Academy of Sciences report, arising from a failure to recognize that the application was drafted before Dec. 17, 1903.]

Hosteny also includes the purported remark of the Commissioner of Patents in 1899: Everything that can be invented has been invented. One might want to check that one out a bit. Further, it is useful to note a parallel remark by a famous physicist made prior to era of quantum mechanics [A. A. Michelson popularized the idea that physicists have nothing left to do but determine the physical constants to another decimal place, but attributed this idea to a mysterious "eminent physicist." Physics Today, 22, no. 1: 9 (January 1969); "Max Planck's physics teacher famously advised him to take up the piano, as there was nothing left to do in physics but fill out a few more decimal places."]

Of Hosteny's reference to the 1899 remark, from Skeptical Inquirer:

This news story [about the alleged 1899 quote] surfaced in the fall of 1985, when full-page advertisements sponsored by the TRW Corporation appeared in a number of leading periodicals, including Harper's and Business Week.

These ads had as their theme "The Future Isn't What It Used to Be." They contained photographs of six individuals, ranging from a baseball player to a president of the United States, who had allegedly made wrong predictions. Along with such statements as "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote," attributed to President Cleveland, and "There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom," attributed to physicist Robert Millikan, there is a prediction that was supposedly made by Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office Charles H. Duell. The words attributed to him were: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." The date given was 1899.

Since I was certain that the quotation was spurious, I wrote to the TRW advertising manager to ask its source. In response to my inquiry, I received a letter referring me to two books, although I had specifically asked for the primary and nor secondary sources. The books were The Experts Speak, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, published in 1984 by Pantheon, and The Book of Facts and Fallacies, by Chris Morgan and David Langford, published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press.


The other book cited by the advertising manager of TRW, Inc., The Experts Speak, by Cerf and Navasky, offers a key to how myths are perpetuated. This volume, published three years after the Morgan and Langford work, contains the spurious Duell quote, "Everything that can be invented has been invented," and prints it as though it had formed part of the commissioner's 1899 report to President McKinley. However, unlike the earlier work, The Experts Speak contains source notes in the back. The source given reads as follows: "Charles H. Duell, quoted from Chris Morgan and David Langford, Facts and Fallacies (Exeter, England, Webb & Bower, 1981), p. 64." Unlikely as it is for the head of the U.S. Patent Office to have said something so silly, evidently it did not occur to Cerf and Navasky to question that statement. They simply copied it from the earlier book. One can expect that in the future there will be more copying because it is easier than checking the facts.

The irony is that the subtitle of The Experts Speak is "The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation." One can only wonder how much more misinformation is contained in this nearly 400-page compendium. On the title page the book is described as a "joint project of the Nation magazine and the Institute of Expertology." Whatever this institute may be, on the theory that the Nation is a responsible publication, I wrote to Mr. Navasky, who is editor of that magazine and coauthor of the book, to ask if he could tell me where and when Commissioner Duell made the stupid statement attributed to him. I did not receive a reply.


The history of the 1899 "quote" is not unlike the history of the "97% of applications result in patents" story. The initial number of 97% was only a bound, which was stated to be the actual grant rate by, among others, the Harvard Law Review. The idea of an elevated grant rate is now imbedded in legal academic folklore.


Anyway, Hosteny's article has a great figure of a scuba-equipped dog.


Post a Comment

<< Home