by David Lindsay, 1999, 232 pages, $22.95, ISBN 1-55821-741-X, Published by Lyons Press
The world's master image maker, Hollywood, has chosen to portray American independent inventors as crowing clowns with a touch of genius. In the real world, most inventors are not clowns and they quietly struggle to solve massive mental, physical, and financial problems. They would just once like to have someone write about them with understanding and compassion. Someone that can laugh with them and not at them. The author of this book has achieved that goal.
The Patent Files is a collection of columns that David Lindsay wrote for the New York Press between 1993 and 1998. Each column deals with a facet of the gem that is called the patent game. He wrote the columns from the inside looking out and not as someone examining a strange bug. With great wit, he examines his own defeats, such as the shoelace that can spell out words. He shares with us the pain of discovering that the "professional" patent search that should have turned up prior patents found none at all while he, a first time amateur at patent searching, found 14 in an hour!
He relates his informal interviews with a large variety of inventors. It is like a fisherman listening to another fisherman describing the fish that got away. Not great stuff for a movie, but you'll like to believe you could have caught that fish.
Not only will the experienced inventor feel at home while reading this book, but a newcomer will benefit from the many valuable insights woven into the columns. For example, the alerting of inventors to the scams that plague the inventing and entrepreneuring fields. He cautions, "Avoid the kind who advertise on the radio and in the classified. They're trolling for suckers". He observes a sad fact of life regarding some large corporations: "...they can clobber you with legal fees until you relent...". Costs, first to invent, and the one-year rule are explained for the newcomer.
Many readers will be delighted to read about the origin of that old legend: The 100 miles per gallon carburetor, "...a spooky tale of Yankee ingenuity crushed by corporate evil". He nails its origin down to the Pogue patent in the 1930s (1,938,497). It involved using heat to convert gas droplets into vapor. Other classics cited are cold fusion, the War of the Currents (AC vs DC, Tesla vs Edison) and with regard to electric transportation, the role played by General Motors in "...helping destroy 100 electric railways systems in 45 cities between 1932 and 1956 according to a 1974 Senate antitrust hearing".
The book runs right up to today. Without gobbledegook, he discusses how inventors are now using our new knowledge about brain functioning, cognitive dissonance, and the Markov chain.
He also delights in exploring our new knowledge about DNA. If the Patent Office allows the patenting of gene fragments, why not patent yourself? Certainly you are unique and you are useful. One gentleman proposed the copyright approach. Since a copyright costs only $20, it seemed like a good way to go. Testing this approach, the author humorously describes his attempt to copyright his own genetic code. You'll enjoy reading the reasons given by the Register of Copyrights for rejecting his application for a copyright.
He even touches on trade secrets. Interestingly, just before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, Coca-Cola actually did contain cocaine.
Fascinating tidbits of information are scattered throughout the book. For example, a popular weather radar system called Doppler 5000 locally) can detect weather conditions up to 300 miles away within 30 seconds -- however, it can call an insect swarm rain and can fail to pick up snow. A rare typo states the Patent Office has 180 examiners, when 1,800 is more like it.
This book will not alter Hollywood's sad treatment of inventors, but it will reassure you that there are people in the real world that understand and appreciate the role of the independent inventor in today's world.