baudrunner's space: Patents and patenting
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Friday, January 18, 2008

Patents and patenting

Albert Einstein wasn't exactly a star pupil. He was very fortunate as a young student in having a very clear thinking and intelligent uncle who would tutor him in fractions, algebra, factoring and mensuration, and, as Albert would later put it, "chasing that 'x' around". This led him to studying mathematics including calculus at the early age of twelve. He had dyslexia, which can be annoying to one so afflicted but this does not hamper one's intellectual potential nor one's mathematical skills, although it might get in the way of one's desire for a promising literary career. He didn't graduate with his physics degree at the top of his class either. In fact, he couldn't find work in his field so for a few years turned to teaching at the high school level. His applications for research positions or professorships at the universities were ignored. Eventually his father got him a job as a technical expert third class in the patent office in Bern where he worked for seven years until 1909. He was promoted to technical expert second class in 1906.

The first three decades of the twentieth century were the golden years of physics, and the European world wooed the likes of Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Karl Heisenberg, and then Albert Einstein, who finally earned the recognition he deserved, earning full professorships and fellowships. Einstein's first paper on relativity was actually written in 1905, while he was still in the employ of the patent office.

At the time, capitalist America was almost in full swing, as it was approaching the 1920's era of flappers and speak-easies, and most Americans cared little for relativity or quantum theory since there appeared to be no money in it. The great inventor genius Nicola Tesla was almost destined to die in obscurity. Some rich speculators did almost fully invest in some of his ideas, but invariably project funding would be withdrawn when no immediate profit could be realized from them.

There was news among the intellectual community in the early 1900's of an enthusiastic patent clerk in Bern who had published five papers written in 1905 in the journal Annalen der Physik in Germany. Seeking recognition was of course what it was all about. Ultimately, an official paper on Einstein's Theory of Relativity was submitted to the Nobel Peer Review Committee. It noted on the cover the names of three reviewers, and at least one stands out as a member of a wealthy family in America who were concerned primarily with profiteering at any cost (sshhh..there is a rumor that the term "patsy" was first coined to codename the secret source of patent applications passed under the table to certain people who might wield some influence with the Nobel Prize Committee). The Nobel committee passed on the honor for Einstein's work on relativity theory because there was no foreseeable method for proving it, and just the mathematics is simply not sufficient. He won the Nobel prize instead for his explanation of the photo-electric effect.

In the heart of every physicist lives a crank. There is no crank worth his mettle who hasn't at some point imagined a perpetual motion device. I admit to being a crank, but of course I claim that right because of, or maybe in spite of the fact that I do not have a physics degree. I once also imagined a perpetual motion device, but I was afraid to build it because I didn't want to face the unpleasant truth..

ingenious plan          ingenious plan

Remarkable what you can do with a few pieces of wood, some elastic bands, and a marble. I can't help shaking the idea that if I ever built it, it would just keep accelerating until it flew apart. I never did apply for a patent outright, but I do reserve copyright just in case.

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