Tuesday, May 1, 2007

U.S. Supreme Court invalidates my father's patent

Yesterday our family received a blow. My father's patent for a welding cart, granted in the early nineteen forties has been invalidated in a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court. Fortunately I was able to shrug the blow off easily since to the best of my knowledge we had never made a nickel from the whole enterprise in the first place. Yet the story is nevertheless interesting:

As a matter of fact the direct cause of yesterday's ruling was a patent for an automobile accelerator pedal combined with a sensor that sends signals to an electronically controlled engine as to the speed desired. The company that held this patent sued another company for patent infringement; this second company had developed a similar device. The court, in effect overturning decades of patents already granted, said no to the first company which held the patent: to be patentable an invention must solve a problem, be novel, and not simply be a combination of two or more pre-existing patents. In short, it must be: "non-obvious".

Brazing is a common form of welding in which metal is heated by a gaseous fuel, acetylene, with its heat then intensified using another gas, oxygen, finally, when things are hot enough, bronze is added and melted to effect a "weld" between the pieces to be joined. Both of these gases are supplied in heavy, cylindrical, metal "bottles" which are under very high pressure. Surely everyone will have seen these heavy bottles being delivered by truck to shops around the country. The acetylene bottle is rather short and squat, while the oxygen bottle, for no obvious reason, is rather skinny and tall. The problem my father solved to earn his patent was this:

One day at work, an oxygen bottle tipped over and the valve at its top ruptured, thus accelerating the heavy, steel bottle, under the force of the high pressure gas, right through a masonry wall and up Washington street scaring the bejeesus out of horses and pedestrians and causing all manner of pandemonium and damage.

His solution was simply to stabilize the two bottles in a cart with hard rubber wheels and handles which permitted them to easily be rolled around to where the work was to be done. He added little places on the cart where the welding "torch" could be stored, the hoses be neatly rolled up, and other various accessories could be properly put away. It was quite clever—I was made to clean many of them before they were sold to other welders. But it was, in a real sense, an "obvious" design; nearly any good welder could have figured out something like this. Yet he was granted a patent on the idea, as have been numerous others for other clever, but obvious, ideas since then.

Now the lawyers, those pen and paper craftsman, can obviously proceed.