Monday, February 8, 2010

Goofy patents

Count me among those who believe that many patents issued today are frivolous. They describe something that is either self-evident, impractical, or physics defying. I'll bet you've seen a cartoon showing hopeful men in the waiting room of the patent office, each with some contraption in his lap, one man making a rueful comment to another. It's not done that way. Never has been. All you need for a patent is the written description of a device. Well, that plus patience and money to work your way through the system. I used to think this was a modern development, but then I stumbled across a Kokernot patent more than a century old.

Alexander Kokernot was David Kokernot's nephew in New Orleans. He envisioned churning butter or ice cream while leisurely reading the evening paper by attaching the churn handle to the back of his rocking chair. Even if you've never churned ice cream you may imagine the heavy force required, especially as the churning approaches completion. The drawing accompanying the patent looks like something created by Rube Goldberg, except Goldberg's inventions were at least operable, if overly complex and pointless. Kokernot churned out (eeeyuw!) more patents over the years, but none so amusing as this one. He died in poverty, so it's likely none were commercial successes.

Patents, at least old ones, are difficult to research. The Patent and Trademark Office has online images from the first (for manufacturing potash, signed by George Washington) to the most recent. Unfortunately, their search engine for patents earlier than 1975 only searches on patent number and date of issue. If you don't know either of those, your only hope is to stumble across that information. I found the Kokernot patent because, for some unknown reason, somebody at Miami University in Ohio indexed the patents issued to Louisianians from 1810 to 1890.

To examine an elegant patent, decidedly not frivolous, take a look at one of mine.