Patent trolls, patent thickets, international tug-of-wars, and the race to be first to file may seem like the stuff of today’s cut-throat global economy. But they’re old news. Many of the most iconic American inventions were mired in patent battles.
As the U.S. joined the rest of the world by shifting to a first-to-file system last month, the debate over the best way to reward American ingenuity is as red-blooded as ever. Today, the Wright Brother’s roll, pitch and yaw have been replaced by the tablet wars’ pinch, tap, and zoom. If you’re struggling to understand the issues at stake in today’s patent laws, history can offer some insights. Wars of ideas are as American as apple pie (which we inherited from the British. Or the Germans, in the case of streusel toppings. Or are those Dutch crumbs?).
1. It’s Sew Unfair
One of the biggest 19th century patent smackdowns involved sewing-machine inventor Elias Howe and Isaac Singer, who threatened to kick
Howe “down the steps of the machine shop” after Howe demanded royalties.
Howe, a poor widower, invented the lockstitch and was granted a patent in 1846 for his early sewing machine—the device that would free women from hours of drudgery and usher in mass production of clothing. But almost as soon as he started producing his machines, there were copycats on the shelves, including some that worked better.
Most notable among his competitors was Singer, who had a hot temper and a flair for business. Howe and his financial backer went after him and all other “infringers” in a series of lawsuits that dragged on for years. Howe had the upper hand in court, but Singer pushed on and continued making improvements to his model. By 1855, there were more than 70 patents covering various innovations, and the industry was snarled in a tangle of competing claims known as the Sewing Machine Wars.
The battle is notable not only as one of the earliest examples of a patent thicket, but also as the first patent pool in American history. Howe, Singer, and two other competitors eventually dropped the lawyers and went for the upside. They formed the Sewing Machine Combination to reduce licensing fees and pool royalty profits from newer entrants to the market.
Howe died a wealthy man, but Singer had the last laugh. Not only did he patent a stronger machine that could sew through leather and other tough materials, but he became a household name—not because he was the first to invent, but because he got his machines to the masses with a special deal known as the installment plan.
2. A Game of Telephone
We all know Alexander Graham Bell as the father of the telephone, but if it wasn’t for a close brush at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, we might have had Pa Gray—or possibly Papa Meucci—instead of Ma Bell.
The invention of the telephone, like most technological breakthroughs, was the work of a series of inventors over a number of years. But it was Bell who had who had the savvy, the lawyers, and the business chops to hold on to his patent and build the American Bell Telephone Company. Even so, Bell’s patent became one of the most litigated—not to mention valuable—in American history.
Bell’s famous first words, “Mr Watson—come here—I want to see you,” were predated by a lesser-known phrase 15 years earlier: “The horse does not eat cucumber salad.” Inventor Johann Philipp Reis spoke that first intelligible sentence (in German), over a crude electric “telephon” in 1860. Several other inventors produced simple phones before Bell received his patent in 1876.
Actually, Bell wasn’t even the first to patent a voice communication device. In 1871, Italian immigrant Antonio Meucci filed a caveat—similar to a provisional patent—for the electromagnetic “teletrofono” which he used to call his bedridden wife on the second floor from his basement laboratory. But Meucci didn’t have the $250 he needed to apply for a full patent, or even the $10 to renew the caveat, so he let it expire. His limited English and poor business skills kept him from capitalizing on his invention—but not from suing Bell.
The case was on its way to the Supreme Court when Meucci died, penniless, in 1889. Congress recognized Meucci’s contribution in 2002, with a resolution stating that “if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell.”
Bell had an even closer call on February 14, 1875, when the race to patent the talking telegraph came down to the wire. He and rival inventor Elisha Gray both filed for patents that morning, hours apart. Bell’s was logged in first, though Gray may have actually dropped his off earlier. Despite the kerfuffle over who got there first, it’s pretty clear that Bell had the best working model, which he finally got to function about a month after filing. Even so, there has been ongoing debate about seven sentences that had been inserted into Bell’s application at the last minute, and which closely matched a portion of Gray’s caveat. Had Bell borrowed from Gray?
Legal battles between Bell, Gray, Meucci, and Western Union dragged on into the 1880s, until the Supreme Court upheld Bell’s patent by a single vote. In all, American Bell Telephone Company and its successor AT&T fought off 587 legal challenges to its patents over the years. Bell and his company prevailed, which is why we know him as father of the phone—except in Italy, where they haven’t given up on Meucci.
3. Light Fight
Almost 100 years before Menlo Park, CA became a center for innovation, it was Menlo Park, N.J. where the real game-changing work was underway. It was there, in 1879, that Thomas Edison flipped the switch on a new age by inventing the lightbulb.
Or rather, innovated the lightbulb.
Incandescent light technology had been developing for decades before Edison dove into the heated race to build a better bulb. Several others had patented earlier versions of electric lightbulbs, though none were practical for widespread use.
Edison gathered a talented team of machinists, glassblowers, carpenters, mathematicians to his laboratory, where he has already invented the phonograph. And a year after starting work in earnest, they delivered: Edison patented his new carbon-filament bulb in 1879. The problem was that it was similar to one already invented by British chemist and physicist Joseph Swan. After Swan sued Edison and won, the two inventors joined forces to create the short-lived the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company or Ediswan.
Edison lost another patent battle in 1883, when the U.S. Patent Office ruled that his work was based on patents owned by William Sawyer, another American inventor. But Edison eventually won the fight in 1889 and got to hold on to patents for his specific improvements to the lightbulb.
In the end, it can be fairly said that Edison—an undisputedly brilliant inventor who over his life held almost 1,100 patents—developed the first commercially viable incandescent bulb. And he invented the system to deliver electric current to the masses. Or was that Nikola Tesla? But that’s another story.
4. Have you driven a Selden lately?
Around the time Bell began building his monopoly, a cunning New York attorney named George Selden had found a way to work the patent system for a profit. Selden was able to hold the nascent automobile industry hostage for 16 years, stalling his patent application for an “improved road engine” with repeated amendments and other legal maneuvering. His 1879 application covered not just the engine (which he had based on someone else’s design); he also patented a broad plan for its use in a four-wheeled “horseless carriage.” But he had no intention of actually manufacturing the thing.
When Selden finally got his patent in 1895, he threatened all start-up car companies with lawsuits unless they paid him licensing fees. Most complied, except for a young upstart named Henry Ford. Selden’s Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM) took Ford to court, sparking an epic eight-year battle.
Selden prevailed at first, but Ford fought on. In 1911, Ford won on the grounds that his engine was based on a different design than the one Selden had patented. Selden did get his place in history, though: his profiteering led many to dub him the first strategic non-practicing entity—aka patent troll. To be fair, he did eventually build a car based on his patented design, on a judge’s orders. Turned out it wasn’t exactly built Ford tough.
5. First Wrights
The brothers Orville and Wilbur have regained their image as the heroes who made good on mankind’s dream of flight. But during their lifetimes, the Wrights’ myopic litigiousness tarnished their fame.
Buoyed by their success at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wright brothers filed for a patent on their flying machine. They were rejected at first, but eventually received a patent in 1906. Their biggest innovation was their system for controlling flight on three axes, known as pitch, roll and yaw. But instead of continuing to improve their craft, the brothers spent years blocking the development of the aviation industry, suing anyone who didn’t pay up.
The Wright Brothers became so consumed by their patent flight that they stopped flying altogether from 1905 to 1908 (prompting the press to question whether they were “Fliers or Liars”). They were especially focused on blocking Glenn Curtiss, another American flight pioneer. And their hubris caused them to stick to their original design, ignoring safety and performance leaps that were continuing in the U.S. and Europe.
It was only under pressure from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was then secretary of Navy and was desperate to build American air forces for World War I, that the brothers’ fights were grounded. FDR forced the Wright Company and the Curtiss Company into a patent pool in 1917. By then, though, the Wrights had been outpaced on technology and the Curtiss Jenny became the first mass-produced airplane.
Wilbur Wright’s mindset is clear in a 1910 letter: “It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal use of our system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us.”
Sound familiar, Tim Cook?