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08/22/2000

Patents and Singer the Swinger

In a recent Newsweek column, George Will quotes the New
York Evening Telegram in 1878 on the occasion of Thomas
Edison visiting Washington. The newspaper cited the chief
contributions of America in the 18th century as being in the art
of governing, while in the 19th century they were our
"...practical discoveries and inventions in natural science and the
arts tending to promote the conveniences of life. The Capitol
symbolizes American triumphs in the last [18th] century, the
Patent Office in this [19th]." One could certainly argue that the
same would hold true for the 20th century. Why did a company
like my old employer, AT&T Bell Labs, spend some $2 billion
dollars a year on research and development? Certainly, a
primary goal was to come up with new inventions and patents,
the transistor being the ultimate example.

Although patents were issued in the colonies prior to the
American Revolution, today''s patent law has its basis in Article
1, Section 8 of the Constitution: "The Congress shall have Power
... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by
securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the
exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries...."
Article 1, Section 8 was a pretty powerful section of the
Constitution. It also provided for such things as the
establishment of Post Offices, collection of taxes, declaration of
war, coinage of money, establishment of an Army and Navy, etc.
Perhaps this explains why the Patent Act of 1790 designated the
secretaries of state and war and the attorney general to administer
the Act. Since then, the Patent Office has wandered around into
the Depart of the Interior, then the Department of Commerce. It
is now known as the Patent and Trademark Office.

The issue as to what is patentable is something that has been the
subject of controversy since the Constitution delegated to
Congress the writing of laws to regulate and protect the rights of
inventors and authors to their works. Today, the controversy has
intensified with the decoding of the human genome. The patent
department has been inundated with patent applications related to
human genes and the question is just what can be patented when
it relates to human life? I won''t try to answer that question here.
However, the history of what is patentable is in itself rather
interesting.

What makes an idea or discovery patentable? Pretty clearly, it
has to be new and, hopefully, useful. A decision by the Supreme
Court in 1850 essentially stated that you couldn''t patent a product
of nature since it didn''t involve human ingenuity. For example,
in 1928, General Electric tried to patent the chemical element
tungsten but the application was turned down. In 1880, Supreme
Court Justice Noah Swayne ruled that a patentable invention
required a "flash of genius". I should think that it might require
a genius to determine just what a flash of genius really is! I am
a coinventor of a number of patents and I can assure you that
none involved what I would term "genius". In 1950, Justice
William Douglas really fouled things up when he wrote that a
patent must "push back the frontiers of chemistry, physics and
the like..." Not only that, but he also opined that "The
Constitution never sanctioned the patenting of gadgets." We will
shortly consider one of a multitude of "gadgets" that indeed had
been patented, some with world-shaking results. A new patent
law in 1952 finally defined a patentable invention in a more
reasonable manner by introducing "nonobviousness" into the
picture. To test the concept that something is not obvious, the
patent examiner now determines whether or not a person having
"ordinary skill in the art" would have thought of the proposed
invention. If not, then the idea should be considered for
patenting.

Let''s look at one of the "gadgets", patented over 150 years ago,
that has been and continues to be a major player, and source of
contention, in the economies of many countries today. Indeed,
one source (uselessknowledge.com) quotes Mahatma Gandhi as
calling this invention "one of the few useful things ever
invented". The invention is the sewing machine. Until
yesterday, I''m ashamed to admit, I had never understood how a
sewing machine works. In order to prepare myself for writing
this column, I searched for the answer from an expert, my wife.
As a child she used to make her own clothes and her explanation
of the sewing machine''s mechanism was a revelation to me. I
had always thought that there was just one thread, having no idea
that another thread is looped and pulled tight by the first thread,
all due to a thing called a bobbin rotating around in sync with the
needle''s motion. And, amazingly, one thread stays on one side of
the cloth. In researching this topic, I also found that the word
"clothes" doesn''t have a singular and is derived from the fact that
clothes are made of cloths sewn together.

The invention of the sewing machine is generally credited to
Elias Howe, although he was actually preceded by an
Englishman, a Frenchman and an American whose instruments
were cruder and not commercially viable. However, the name
most familiar to anyone into sewing is Singer. Isaac Merrit
Singer was quite a character, in addition to being a very clever
and innovative inventor and entrepreneur. My current interest in
Mr. Singer and patents was stimulated by articles by John Steele
Gordon and by Frederick Allen in the July/August issue of
American Heritage. The information in this column is based on
those articles and my findings in Britannica, Microsoft Encarta
97 Encyclopedia, The World Book and the aforementioned
uselessknowledge.com, a Web site I had not encountered before.

Singer left home at age 12, possibly moving in with an older
brother living in Rochester, New York. At 19, he was
apprenticed to a machinist and also got married. Although a
born tinkerer, he really wanted to be an actor and would support
himself by alternating as a machinist and a pedestrian thespian.
On one of his acting gigs in Baltimore, Singer became engaged
to a young lady. Not to worry that he was already married and
had a couple of kids! By the time the young lady came to New
York to marry Singer, his wife had left, but not divorced him. So
Singer and his new lady friend cohabited long enough to have ten
children. It wasn''t until after those ten children that Singer
divorced his first wife, left his Baltimore lady and married
another. He continued this lifestyle, fathering a total of some 24
children by at least five different women.

In the midst of all this activity, he finally shelved his acting to
concentrate on machining and bring in money to help support his
various "families". Apparently, he was quite conscientious in
this regard. With the support of a businessman named Zieber,
Singer tried to market an invention for carving wooden type.
They had rented space in a machine shop in Boston to show the
invention to potential buyers, who turned out not to be
impressed. The machine shop, fortuitously, was involved in
making sewing machines, of a design by Elias Howe. These
machines always needed resetting and were really quite
impractical. At first, when asked to repair one of these Howe-
designed machines, Singer wanted nothing to do with it, saying
that the sewing machine would "do away with the only thing that
keeps women quiet, their sewing!" However, Singer needed the
money and finally concentrated on improving the design of
Howe''s machine. Howe had used a curved needle, while Singer
used a straight needle and introduced a back and forth shuttle
motion which allowed continuous feeding of the cloth through
the machine. Singer obtained a patent on his machine in 1851.

Howe''s patent was in 1846 and, not surprisingly, Howe sued
Singer. They eventually settled their differences and formed a
patent pool, apparently the first time that arrangement had been
used. Howe and Singer each reportedly received $5 for every
machine they sold. Singer began selling his machines in the
international market in 1855 and received first prize at the Paris
World''s Fair. He was not only a tinkerer, but also a shrewd
businessman. Singer was the first to spend over a million dollars
on advertising, back when a million was real money! He also
gets credit for introducing installment payment plans, although it
was apparently his business associate, one Edward Clark, who
actually proposed the plan. This plan enlarged the market for the
sewing machines to those who wouldn''t normally be able to
afford them. Is there one among us who hasn''t benefited from
installment payment plans?

Singer died in 1875 in England. He had moved there after the
scandal that ensued when the American public learned of his
penchant for women and procreation. Apparently the English
were not so put off by such shenanigans. When the sewing
machine first appeared there was anger and fear among textile
workers, afraid of losing their jobs. Of course, the cheaper
clothes resulting from the introduction of the sewing machine
made the clothes affordable for the masses and the market for
them expanded by leaps and bounds. Today, when various
celebrities get blasted for the conditions in the overseas clothing
manufacturers'' workshops, the sewing machine is there, playing
an important role. The ethics and/or morality of that role and the
child labor involved in third world countries remains a problem
for others to debate and solve.

When my wife and I got married almost 50 years ago, one of our
first purchases was a Singer sewing machine, now in our
granddaughter''s bedroom. I''ll never forget the day when I came
home from work to find my wife''s thumb impaled by the needle
in her Singer! Even today, she still knows her stitching. Some
time ago she cut her finger badly on a broken casserole dish. In
the emergency room, a doctor sewed up the finger but only my
wife would have pointed out that the stitching had left a little flap
of skin hanging. She had him to remove the stitches and start
over again, instructing him in the proper technique. You never
know when a knowledge of sewing will come in handy!

Allen F. Bortrum



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-08/22/2000-      
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Dr. Bortrum

08/22/2000

Patents and Singer the Swinger

In a recent Newsweek column, George Will quotes the New
York Evening Telegram in 1878 on the occasion of Thomas
Edison visiting Washington. The newspaper cited the chief
contributions of America in the 18th century as being in the art
of governing, while in the 19th century they were our
"...practical discoveries and inventions in natural science and the
arts tending to promote the conveniences of life. The Capitol
symbolizes American triumphs in the last [18th] century, the
Patent Office in this [19th]." One could certainly argue that the
same would hold true for the 20th century. Why did a company
like my old employer, AT&T Bell Labs, spend some $2 billion
dollars a year on research and development? Certainly, a
primary goal was to come up with new inventions and patents,
the transistor being the ultimate example.

Although patents were issued in the colonies prior to the
American Revolution, today''s patent law has its basis in Article
1, Section 8 of the Constitution: "The Congress shall have Power
... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by
securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the
exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries...."
Article 1, Section 8 was a pretty powerful section of the
Constitution. It also provided for such things as the
establishment of Post Offices, collection of taxes, declaration of
war, coinage of money, establishment of an Army and Navy, etc.
Perhaps this explains why the Patent Act of 1790 designated the
secretaries of state and war and the attorney general to administer
the Act. Since then, the Patent Office has wandered around into
the Depart of the Interior, then the Department of Commerce. It
is now known as the Patent and Trademark Office.

The issue as to what is patentable is something that has been the
subject of controversy since the Constitution delegated to
Congress the writing of laws to regulate and protect the rights of
inventors and authors to their works. Today, the controversy has
intensified with the decoding of the human genome. The patent
department has been inundated with patent applications related to
human genes and the question is just what can be patented when
it relates to human life? I won''t try to answer that question here.
However, the history of what is patentable is in itself rather
interesting.

What makes an idea or discovery patentable? Pretty clearly, it
has to be new and, hopefully, useful. A decision by the Supreme
Court in 1850 essentially stated that you couldn''t patent a product
of nature since it didn''t involve human ingenuity. For example,
in 1928, General Electric tried to patent the chemical element
tungsten but the application was turned down. In 1880, Supreme
Court Justice Noah Swayne ruled that a patentable invention
required a "flash of genius". I should think that it might require
a genius to determine just what a flash of genius really is! I am
a coinventor of a number of patents and I can assure you that
none involved what I would term "genius". In 1950, Justice
William Douglas really fouled things up when he wrote that a
patent must "push back the frontiers of chemistry, physics and
the like..." Not only that, but he also opined that "The
Constitution never sanctioned the patenting of gadgets." We will
shortly consider one of a multitude of "gadgets" that indeed had
been patented, some with world-shaking results. A new patent
law in 1952 finally defined a patentable invention in a more
reasonable manner by introducing "nonobviousness" into the
picture. To test the concept that something is not obvious, the
patent examiner now determines whether or not a person having
"ordinary skill in the art" would have thought of the proposed
invention. If not, then the idea should be considered for
patenting.

Let''s look at one of the "gadgets", patented over 150 years ago,
that has been and continues to be a major player, and source of
contention, in the economies of many countries today. Indeed,
one source (uselessknowledge.com) quotes Mahatma Gandhi as
calling this invention "one of the few useful things ever
invented". The invention is the sewing machine. Until
yesterday, I''m ashamed to admit, I had never understood how a
sewing machine works. In order to prepare myself for writing
this column, I searched for the answer from an expert, my wife.
As a child she used to make her own clothes and her explanation
of the sewing machine''s mechanism was a revelation to me. I
had always thought that there was just one thread, having no idea
that another thread is looped and pulled tight by the first thread,
all due to a thing called a bobbin rotating around in sync with the
needle''s motion. And, amazingly, one thread stays on one side of
the cloth. In researching this topic, I also found that the word
"clothes" doesn''t have a singular and is derived from the fact that
clothes are made of cloths sewn together.

The invention of the sewing machine is generally credited to
Elias Howe, although he was actually preceded by an
Englishman, a Frenchman and an American whose instruments
were cruder and not commercially viable. However, the name
most familiar to anyone into sewing is Singer. Isaac Merrit
Singer was quite a character, in addition to being a very clever
and innovative inventor and entrepreneur. My current interest in
Mr. Singer and patents was stimulated by articles by John Steele
Gordon and by Frederick Allen in the July/August issue of
American Heritage. The information in this column is based on
those articles and my findings in Britannica, Microsoft Encarta
97 Encyclopedia, The World Book and the aforementioned
uselessknowledge.com, a Web site I had not encountered before.

Singer left home at age 12, possibly moving in with an older
brother living in Rochester, New York. At 19, he was
apprenticed to a machinist and also got married. Although a
born tinkerer, he really wanted to be an actor and would support
himself by alternating as a machinist and a pedestrian thespian.
On one of his acting gigs in Baltimore, Singer became engaged
to a young lady. Not to worry that he was already married and
had a couple of kids! By the time the young lady came to New
York to marry Singer, his wife had left, but not divorced him. So
Singer and his new lady friend cohabited long enough to have ten
children. It wasn''t until after those ten children that Singer
divorced his first wife, left his Baltimore lady and married
another. He continued this lifestyle, fathering a total of some 24
children by at least five different women.

In the midst of all this activity, he finally shelved his acting to
concentrate on machining and bring in money to help support his
various "families". Apparently, he was quite conscientious in
this regard. With the support of a businessman named Zieber,
Singer tried to market an invention for carving wooden type.
They had rented space in a machine shop in Boston to show the
invention to potential buyers, who turned out not to be
impressed. The machine shop, fortuitously, was involved in
making sewing machines, of a design by Elias Howe. These
machines always needed resetting and were really quite
impractical. At first, when asked to repair one of these Howe-
designed machines, Singer wanted nothing to do with it, saying
that the sewing machine would "do away with the only thing that
keeps women quiet, their sewing!" However, Singer needed the
money and finally concentrated on improving the design of
Howe''s machine. Howe had used a curved needle, while Singer
used a straight needle and introduced a back and forth shuttle
motion which allowed continuous feeding of the cloth through
the machine. Singer obtained a patent on his machine in 1851.

Howe''s patent was in 1846 and, not surprisingly, Howe sued
Singer. They eventually settled their differences and formed a
patent pool, apparently the first time that arrangement had been
used. Howe and Singer each reportedly received $5 for every
machine they sold. Singer began selling his machines in the
international market in 1855 and received first prize at the Paris
World''s Fair. He was not only a tinkerer, but also a shrewd
businessman. Singer was the first to spend over a million dollars
on advertising, back when a million was real money! He also
gets credit for introducing installment payment plans, although it
was apparently his business associate, one Edward Clark, who
actually proposed the plan. This plan enlarged the market for the
sewing machines to those who wouldn''t normally be able to
afford them. Is there one among us who hasn''t benefited from
installment payment plans?

Singer died in 1875 in England. He had moved there after the
scandal that ensued when the American public learned of his
penchant for women and procreation. Apparently the English
were not so put off by such shenanigans. When the sewing
machine first appeared there was anger and fear among textile
workers, afraid of losing their jobs. Of course, the cheaper
clothes resulting from the introduction of the sewing machine
made the clothes affordable for the masses and the market for
them expanded by leaps and bounds. Today, when various
celebrities get blasted for the conditions in the overseas clothing
manufacturers'' workshops, the sewing machine is there, playing
an important role. The ethics and/or morality of that role and the
child labor involved in third world countries remains a problem
for others to debate and solve.

When my wife and I got married almost 50 years ago, one of our
first purchases was a Singer sewing machine, now in our
granddaughter''s bedroom. I''ll never forget the day when I came
home from work to find my wife''s thumb impaled by the needle
in her Singer! Even today, she still knows her stitching. Some
time ago she cut her finger badly on a broken casserole dish. In
the emergency room, a doctor sewed up the finger but only my
wife would have pointed out that the stitching had left a little flap
of skin hanging. She had him to remove the stitches and start
over again, instructing him in the proper technique. You never
know when a knowledge of sewing will come in handy!

Allen F. Bortrum