Librarian offers snapshot of patent history
Patent and Trademark Depository librarian at the Illinois State Library
Patents originated in 17th-century England - and the king owned every one, according to Jane Running, recently retired Patent and Trademark Depository librarian at the Illinois State Library in Springfield. By the late 18th century in the United States, though, the king had lost a lot of ground
Running says the distinction of having 'canonized' the concept of authors and inventors owning their own patents belongs to the United States, as does the idea that the first person who invents something - if he or she can prove it - owns the rights to that thing. In some countries, the first person to appear at the local patent office, whether or not he or she invented the item, can become the owner.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in the Department of Commerce, has charge of such matters in this country. In 1980, the patent office began establishing a nationwide network of official Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries; today, 88 such facilities exist around the country, including Running's home base in Springfield.
She says the Illinois State Library joined the network in 1984, and she described the federal and state support of that depository as excellent. On hand are such resources as bound volumes of the annual index for almost every year since 1790, the year the first U.S. patent was issued, as well as personal computers, CDs and more recently DVDs, along with microfilm and readers. And new search tools are appearing all the time.
Each year representatives from all the depository libraries also go to Washington for special training, Running says. In those sessions, the librarians are immersed in patent office history, which begins with that first U.S. patent, which was for a component of gunpowder.
By 1836, Running says, some 10,000 U.S. patents had been granted, and then, the patent office burned. 'A call went out to inventors to return their patent documents so copies could be made, but the response was varied.' In cases of very important patented inventions, such as Eli Whitney's cotton gin, Samuel Colt's revolver and Cyrus McCormick's reaper, the patents were reconstructed as best they could be in Washington.
After 1836, all new patents were numbered, starting with '1,' and as a consequence, Running notes, the 'first patent' and 'patent number one' are different - just one of the many idiosyncrasies associated with patent research today.
In 1872, the patent office began publishing its Official Gazette as a means of providing patent news to the public, and today that publication is another important research tool. Previously, the Scientific American had served as the unofficial source of patent information, a duty, Running says, it reluctantly gave up.