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Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Lone Rangers and Invention

A not so alone inventor.
Ahh, the myth of the lone inventor.  Once a revered symbol of innovation and human advancement, now pushed sadly to the wayside of more compelling figureheads. Does this fallen hero suggest a wider change in the process of innovation?  Or do these heroes just need better publicists?

The lone inventor has long been the poster child of the patent system. Toiling away in the cinders, inventing for the love of it and rewarded with IP, it's a fairytale come true.

Popular lone inventors include Tesla, Edison and Da Vinci. As the lore goes, these intrepid geniuses discovered and developed all sorts of wonderful technology, including, but not limited to, sliced bread.  Often reclusive, the lone inventor neglected personal hygiene and other worldly pursuits in their dedication to the cause of innovation. Picture lots of unkempt beards.

This is entirely at odds with models of cumulative innovation. The lone inventor is a myth. Tesla borrowed, Edison had insomnia squads, Da Vinci had an entire cultural movement. Instead, innovation is messy and cumulative, with each innovation spurring subsequent innovations.  Two heads are better than one.

There is a certain martyrdom associated with being brilliantly innovative but not enriched by the fruits of one's genius. "The pay-check of genius unhappily is seldom commensurate with service to humanity."  (I, for one, am still waiting for the returns to my amazing nail polish brush holder. Trust me, it's genius.)

The lone inventor has been replaced with the genius company (e.g. Apple) or the equally genius leader (e.g. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates.) The lone innovators we now applaud are better described as entrepreneurs. James Dyson, known for his swashbuckling attitude towards existing vacuum firms, became rich on his cleanliness conquest.  Mark Zuckerberg, with his unusual take on privacy, is a very wealthy star of social media. Financial success is now part of the inventor story.  The inventor for the love of it is no longer.

A recent conversation with a IP and Cricket fan (not mutually exclusive) suggested that an analogy for the shift away from the lone, intrinsically motivated inventor was the shift from amatuer to professional in sport.  In cricket, there was an official class divide, until 1962, between amateurs (gentleman) and professionals (players.)   Amateur represented a higher, purer form. Likewise, the Olympics were originally intended for 'gentlemen amateurs'.

From this dissertation on cricket, "The ideology of "amateurism‟ is extremely nebulous and hard to define. Whilst we know the word "amateur‟s‟ Latin and French etymological roots, its denotation of "one who does something for the love of it.‟ Do we now poo-poo the idea of the amatuer inventor in favour of the professional?

Yet there is one thing that has stayed constant in our lauding of the inventor or commercial success. The heroes are white, male and from developed economies. (No one on this list of female inventors has such fame. This 80s political hip hop highlights a number of unsung African American inventors.) Heterogeneity should increase innovation. Could I get some diversity up in here?


Ron said...

Ron Hickman, the inventor of the "Workmate", is surely a rare example of a successful lone inventor who made money from his invention, although he would not have been able to do so without the support of his licensee Black and Decker.

THE US anon said...

The inclusion of the double entendre shows that sex continues to sell.... does propaganda

Anonymous said...

Except that Facebook success is not based on patents.

Nicola said...

The inclusion of the double entendre ad was to highlight the persistence of the lone inventor stereotype as fitting a specific demographic.

Thanks Ron, I wasn't aware of Ron Hickman!

And you're quite right, Anon 13:37, Facebook success is not based on patents (whose is?) but their innovation.

Roufousse T. Fairfly said...


I hope your brush holder looks nothing like this, otherwise consider this as prior art for drafting your coming patent application -- provided that you did not divulge your invention.

The inventor's lament: our forefathers are thieves, they stole all our best inventions!

MaxDrei said...

Many Americans explain the lack of entrepreneurs in Europe as the consequence of a patent system that is hostile to lone inventors. No grace period, First to File, absolute novelty, and so on.

In reply, I mention Dyson, Hickman and Haberman.

Are they the only ones? More names, anybody?

How about Renishaw? Any medical device entrepreneurs?

Nicola said...

Alas, Roufousse, it seems my idea has already been developed:

MaxDrei - I've heard some interesting arguments that there is no such European innovation paradox or similar argument. It comes down simply to resources - and the US has a lot more of them. I'm not entirely convinced, but there is certainly something there.

Bart van Wezenbeek said...

Born with the Dutch nationality, Willem Kolff invented the artificial kidney when he lived in The Netherlands. However, soon therafter he went to the USA where he further invented the artificial heart and the heart-lung machine. Although he filed some patente inhis name, I don't know whether he has become rich from it, but it surely made him famous (according to Time magazine he belongs to the top 100 of the most influential people of the 20th century).

In view of this life story, I doubt whether Kolff should be seen as a representant of the European inventors, or as an example of living the American dream.

Ron said...

Another successful British lone inventor was a Mr Pritchard. In the late 1940's he invented an automatic coupling suitable for 00 gauge toy trains. He showed it to Meccano Ltd, who were about to resume production of their Hornby Dublo toy trains after the war. They offered to buy the patent outright for £1000, but he stuck out for royalties, and set up his own company (Peco, still very much in existence making model railway accessories) with the proceeds.

His is another example of the small inventor needing the support of a larger company to deal with patent infringement: the Trix company copied the design for their own toy trains and with Meccano's assistance had to pay him damages for infringing the patent and royalties to continue making their version of the coupling.

Michael Factor said...

My favorite invention is a better mouse trap for cathing computer mice. It is a pad with a spring loaded hinged bar that engages said mouse.

One thing is certain, the Ameica Invents Act, despite all its advantages in bringing US Patent Law into line with the rest of the world, does little to help the private (or even the US based corporate) inventor. I am not sure that doing anything more than the highly discounted filing fees for micro entities is appropriate

The Grizzler said...

Browsing (as one does) through the latest edition of the UK Patents' Journal, I noticed that a certain Paul Ware has been rather prolific, filing 54 patent applications over the space of three days. Titles range from "Gorilla etc. suits", "Tennis", "Oil/Gas" "Calculators", "Rings etc.", and many others. I've got no idea whether he is a lone inventor, or a business, but he is likely to have a tired attorney (or worn-out typing fingers) after all that effort.

I've set my alarm for 18 months so I can get a better look at them.

Nicola said...

Perhaps we should do a "nominate your favourite inventor" as it seems like there are a lot more fans out there than I'd thought!

Roufousse T. Fairfly said...


And also recently patent pending.

Here's claim 1:

1. A stylus for use in the application of a cosmetic comprising:
a wand member having a beveled end with a bevel angle and a second end opposite the beveled end;
a cup member having a beveled end with the bevel angle and second end opposite the beveled end;
a connection member comprising one of a magnet or a metallic material, the connection member being fixably [sic] attached to the second end of the cup member; and
a protrusion extending from the end face of the second end of the cup member;
wherein the wand member and cup member are rotatably connected along an axis of rotation at their respective beveled ends.

The international preliminary opinion of ISA/EP for the parallel PCT application is negative for all claims. It is however based on obviousness in view of two documents, making it harder to predict the ultimate scope of the claim.

It wasn't an individual creation, there are no less than five named inventors!

The application hasn't entered the EP regional phase yet, but if your own creation matches the claim, and you have evidence of public disclosure, it would be time to envisage third party observations or an opposition.

Roufousse T. Fairfly said...


I was going to enumerate several cases from both sides of the pond of inventors who either struck it rich or were viciously scr*wed by the system, but in the end patents are really a lottery, unless you have a lot of money. Scrupules, or the lack thereof, being present at the right juncture, and business acumen play more of a role than raw technical savvy.

Successful individual inventors are IMO really "l'exception qui confirme la règle". I will refer to a comment I made earlier on an analogous topic:

The change in the focus of the patent system, from the protection of the inventor to the protection of the corporation which either employed the inventor or purchased his patents, was succinctly phrased by E. F. W. Alexanderson, a Swedish immigrant who became one of GE’s early leading research engineers. “The patent system was established, I believe,” he said, “to protect the lone inventor. In this it has not succeeded ... the patent system protects the institutions which favor invention.”

From: David F. Noble: "America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism", [Chapter 6: The Corporation as Inventor -- Patent-Law Reform and Patent Monopoly]

Old Man said...

Max Drei,
You were frighteningly close to the much quoted idea that the trouble with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur (@ GWBush)

Old man said...

Perhaps also worth remembering the lone inventors who sadly couldn't navigate the patent system? I think immediately of Mr Rubik.

Meldrew said...

The Grizzler,

As you can file a UK patent application with no fees, it does not appear difficult to get your name into the UK Patents Journal.

Just how many UK patents represent vanity rather than innovation is not totally clear.

Anonymous said...

To Max Drei, I think for a medical devices inventor, Archie Brain may fit the bill.

MaxDrei said...

I'm grateful to that last anon for the name Archie Brain. I consulted Wikipedia and read:

with astonishment. Born into HMG's Diplomatic Service (compare Alison Brimelow), in a foreign country, a long way away. Got into medical school with not one science A-Level. Reminds me of the estimable Henry Marsh. Recently retired and author of the best-selling and deeply impressive memoir on brain surgery.

In thoroughly ordered England, these days, you just don't get these amazing people any more. Best place to find them, these days, would be in the streams of refugees. Ask the USA how many inventions of theirs came from refugees given shelter in their country. Thank you for the name Archie Brain.

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