Rainy days send Jim and Phyllis Moffet to the Patent and Trademark Depository Library in Springfield, Ill., like ducks to a puddle. There, the hours slip quietly away while this Modesto, Ill., couple search out patent records on everything from corn shelters to hog 'jewelry' to fence splicers and even pencil sharpeners.
For Jim, a retired farmer, and Phyllis, a homemaker and her husband's 'first lieutenant' in this paper chase, patent research is all about discovery. The lure of 'What is it?' keeps them coming back, and has now for more than a dozen years.
'We got interested in it because some friends were doing it too,' Jim recalls, 'and the more we did, the more we enjoyed it.'
Jane Running, the recently retired patent librarian who taught the Moffets their way around the Springfield library, says after so many years, she came to consider Jim her 'Auxiliary.' He regularly helps out new researchers at her request.
The Springfield facility is one of 88 such official depositories across the country where patent information can be researched. It also is available on the Internet.
Along with helping out in Springfield, Jim often follows up on queries published in Farm Collector's 'Letters' column, mailing whatever his research turns up to the letter writers, and sometimes to Farm Collector editors as well.
At the Springfield library, Running says, about half the patrons are collector researchers, like Jim and Phyllis, and half are inventors seeking to patent their own devices. Once people get acquainted with the research aspects, she says, they're hooked: 'It's one of those things that happens that is so intriguing. You get so enthusiastic it's hard to turn yourself off. I'm not sure who's worse, the genealogists or the collectors.'
In the beginning, Jim says, he was just looking for some information on corn shelters, especially hand-held shelters, which are one of his passions.
When he was a boy of 9, Jim's parents hosted the 1938 Illinois State Corn Husking Competition on their Modesto farm, where Jim and Phyllis still live today. It was a galvanizing event; the Nov. 1, 1938, Illinois State Journal reported a crowd of 85,000 and, in a page one banner headline, dubbed the competition the 'Cornbelt's Classic Sports Event.'
'I well remember it,' Jim recalls, and in the years since, he's amassed a collection of corn-related items that includes box and free-standing shelters, corn shock tiers and various rare husking tools, as well as separate collections of hay forks and carriers, hog, dairy and poultry items.
As he gained confidence in his research skills, Jim came to believe it was important to know who invented the farm things he collects. He says he and Phyllis now have researched the patents 'on virtually every corn sheller ever made,' as well as hundreds of other farm tools and household items
Besides the shelters and associated items, such gizmos as egg beaters, apple peelers, cherry pitters, churns, pencil sharpeners (which Jim describes as 'very interesting'), can openers and fly fans, which were wound up like a clock and which served to keep flies off food at the dinner table, all have come under the Moffets' scrutiny.
They've studied the patents on what Jim calls hog 'jewelry,' including ringers and snooters, which he says were 'cruel, cruel implements made to keep hogs from rooting,' milking machines, and cattle dehorners. You name it on the farm, the Moffets probably have researched the patents.
Besides being just plain interesting, Jim says, patent information may show that particular items have unusual value. That was the case with an 1838 sheller that he owns. Research showed the sheller was invented by the famous mural artist Rufus Porter, whose work can still be seen in many historic New England homes. An itinerant painter who traveled across the Northeast during the early 1800s, Porter also founded the Scientific American, which is generally considered the oldest continuously published periodical in the country.
Jim says thanks to the patent research, he now knows this sheller was invented by Porter and realizes its increased value as a Porter collectible as well as a corn collectible.
Research also confirmed that a cattle dehorner in his collection was invented by another Modesto resident, a man named Charlie or 'Cap' Mills. The dehorner was patented in 1800; Jim says he went through about 20 years of patent records to track down old 'Cap,' and now he has three of those dehorners on his shelf
Every patent the Moffets have researched has been copied and carefully filed away at their home. As the information mounted, the couple began to look for ways to share it, and six years ago, they published a book titled American Corn Huskers, A Patent History, authored by Jim. The publication is sold out now, Jim says, and he's been tempted to do a companion piece on shellers, 'but it would have to be a labor of love.'
For a beginner, he notes, patent research is very time consuming but not complicated, especially if the searcher knows one or more of three crucial clues: the inventor's name, the date an item was patented and/or the type of item it is. Usually at least some of that information is actually on the item in question.
With those clues in hand, it's just a matter of tracing the invention through the system, which can all be done at the library. Jim prefers to use the bound indexes of patents, organized by year and starting in 1791, the year after the first U.S. patent was granted, but the same information is available on DVDs at the library, and over the Internet.
Before 1836, Jim says, patents are listed under the inventor's name; after 1836, they are numbered, beginning with 'No. 1.' So for a fictitious example, if you have a corn sheller that was patented Dec. 22, 1872, 'you pull the book for 1872 and look under 'corn shellers.' The listings give the dates, and Bingo, there it is. It's Patent No., say, 100,021. There'll be the inventor's name and sometimes an address.'
With the patent number in hand, Jim explains, the researcher then goes to the library's microfilm file. High-speed readers with copying machines built right into them zip through years of listings in a flash.
'Once you've zeroed in on the one you're looking for, you can get copies made of the actual patent drawings and descriptions,' Jim says. 'Each page costs a quarter, and that's probably pretty universal (at patent libraries across the country).'
Sometimes, he says, materials used in the invention will be mentioned in the descriptions, but sizes are not, perhaps to help protect the patent. Occasionally, the diagram doesn't look much like the real item - a situation that can be confusing to the neophyte. Such differences occur when an inventor's idea proves 'too grand and glorious' to be practical, and he or she must modify the item in order to manufacture it.
'Ninety percent of the patents we're acquainted with, though,' Jim says, 'are almost identical to the real thing.'
More challenging to research are the 'whadizits' - unidentified old gadgets. For those, Jim says, one strategy is to go to the patent office's Official Gazette, which has announced the granting of patents to the public since 1872.
If there is a date on the item, a researcher can go to the Gazette of that time and often find a picture of the invention, along with the name of the invention and its inventor. Without a date, the researcher is left to make an educated guess as to what the item might be and when it might have been patented.
Because patents have only been issued on Tuesdays since 1872, Jim adds, a perpetual calendar can help ensure that a 'working date' is legitimate before a lot of time is wasted.
Then, he says, 'you just look until you find the thing you have.'
Librarian Running notes that one of the challenges in doing patent research is that language changes over time. A whiffletree, for example, was a well-known piece of equipment 100 years ago, used for keeping work horses together as a team; today, it is virtually unknown.
To help make some sense of the different types of inventions, the patent office uses a classifying system based on function. Learning this system takes time, she says, and researchers, and librarians, can alternately feel 'mired in the mud' and like they're having 'a lot of fun.'
Jim says he can't explain why his interest in patent research endures. 'It's something that gets into your blood. I'm not doing it for the money. I'm doing it just for the thrill of the research.'