In 1899, Charles H. Duell, the U.S. Commissioner of Patents, went before Congress and declared “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” and called for closing the United States Patent Office. As absurd as it sounds, who could blame him? How could anyone have anticipated the 20th century? How could anyone have predicted how mankind would push the limits of technology, medicine, and science? I mean, the technology that my 3-year-old takes for granted wasn’t even around when I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s. It boggles the mind to think of how the world and technology existed in 1900 and where we find ourselves today.
Well of course the U.S. Patent Office is still open for business and “everything” has not been invented. Last Tuesday, the United States Patent Office issued U.S. Patent No. 8,000,000 to Second Sight Medical Products for a “Visual Prosthesis Apparatus” that Enhances Visual Perception for the Sight Impaired. No. 8,000,000 on an invention that seems like something out of science fiction. (I can’t imagine what Mr. Duell would think of it.)
When I started working for a patent lawyer in 1994, I was paying maintenance fees on patents in the 4 millions, and issuing patent numbers started with a 5. (My boss at the time started as a patent attorney when patent numbers started with a 2!) How time flies.
According to the USPTO, the first patent was issued in 1790. It took 121 years to reach the 1,000,000 mark in 1911. 2,000,000 was reached 24 years later. It took 26 more years to get to 3,000,000 in 1961, 14.25 years to reach 4,000,000 in 1976, and another 15 years to see 5,000,000 in 1991. Roughly 5 million patents in 200 years, 4 million of those in 80 years. Then something extraordinary happened.
US Patent No. 6,000,000 was issued in 1999, only 8 years after No. 5,000,000. No. 7,000,000 was issued 6.2 years later in 2006. It only took a short 5 years to reach last week’s milestone of No. 8,000,000. 3 million patents have issued in the last 20 years. 37.5% of the patents ever issued in the United States were issued in the last 20 years.
For all of the recent debate over the cost of patents and the validity of software patents, it is clear that inventors will continue to get patents in ever greater numbers. Why? Because they have value. Patents have value as offensive and defensive weapons, as paper trophies and hard-earned rewards, as deterrents and catalysts, as monuments to human achievement, and as a record of the best (and worst) technology human beings can dream of.
Here’s to toasting No. 9,000,000 in 2015! Maybe by then we’ll have invented something cool like flying cars. Oh wait, we already have.
Check out the USPTO web page showing the #millionth patents. http://www.uspto.gov/news/Millions_of_Patents.jsp