Close Doesn’t Count in Patent Race 

Alexander Graham Bell controversy Elisha Gray telephone invention patent
Elisha Gray (left) and Alexander Graham Bell (right)

February 14, 1876 was a big day for Elisha Gray. That was the day he filed his application for a patent for his revolutionary new invention. His device promised to unite the world as never before by allowing a person to speak to and hear another person miles away by sending the voices through a tiny electrical wire. That miraculous device would be called the telephone.  Continue reading

Letting the Dead Rest in Peace

coffin torpedo grave robbers body snatchers

Grave robbery was not something that just showed up in Frankenstein stories. In the last half of the 19th century, human corpses were in high demand by medical schools, and the body snatching market grew in response. No one’s remains were considered off limits. Extraordinary measures had to be taken to protect the body of President Abraham Lincoln.  One notable person whose body was stolen was John Scott Harrison, the only man who was both the son of a US President (William Henry Harrison) and the father of a US President (Benjamin Harrison). Outrage over the theft of his mortal remains sparked the first landmark legislation to address the growing problem.

Not content to wait until the law addressed the issue, inventors put their minds toward creative ways to make sure the dead could rest in peace. In 1878 Phil Clover of Columbus, Ohio received U.S. Patent No. 208,672 for the coffin torpedo, a shotgun-like device to be placed on top of a buried coffin lid. Anyone who attempted to uncover the grave would be rewarded with a shotgun blast.

Coffin torpedo patent
Illustration accompanying Patent No. 208,672, for P.K. Clover’s Coffin Torpedo.

Clover’s invention was put to the test in 1881 in Knox County, Ohio, when three would-be grave robbers ended up needed graves for themselves after uncovering a coffin torpedo.

While grave robbery is no longer the problem it once was, it should be noted that an unknown number of coffin torpedoes are still out there, silently guarding any number of graves. Whether you have evil intent or simply go digging in the wrong spot, be aware that the next shovelful of earth you move might be your last.

Wiping Away Doubt About How to Hang Toilet Paper

toilet paper holder patent
Patent No. 465,588 for the toilet paper roll settles the question about how the roll is to be oriented.

It has been listed as one of the top causes of marital strife. It has divided families, torn friendships asunder, and generated more letters to advice columnist Ann Landers than any other topic. What could be such a controversial subject? The Presidential election? The latest Supreme Court opinion? The favored team for the World Series?

Try toilet paper orientation.

The controversial subject of “over” or “under” has divided people more than almost any other subject. It has even triggered arguments among the scientists stationed at Amundsen-Scott Research Station at the South Pole. There is even a Wikipedia page devoted to arguments for each opposing view.

For those who subscribe to the originalist philosphy of legal interpretation, this debate can be settled once and for all. When Seth Wheeler filed for a patent for “Improvements in Toilet-Paper Rolls” on December 22, 1891, he included a diagram of how the roll should be oriented on the hanger.

He was clearly an overachiever.


Take a Shot at a Better Mousetrap

Strange patent mousetrap with gun

James A. Williams of Fredonia, Texas applied for a patent for a better mousetrap. Not content with something as mild as poison or a spring trap, Williams devised a means by which a Colt 1860 revolver could be linked to a pressure trigger, thus bringing a certain — and noisy — and to the unfortunate mouse at the other end.

Also mindful of other types of pests that might be roaming the neighborhood, Williams noted that the invention could be used “in connection with a door or window, so as to kill any person or thing opening the door or window to which it is attached.”

Despite the gruesomeness of the concept, the US Patent Office approved the application and issued U.S. Patent No. 269,766 to Mr. Williams on December 26, 1882.

The record is silent as to the number of vermin — human or otherwise — faced down his invention.


Mark Twain: Patently Multi-Talented

Mark Twain patents scrapbook garment strap memory game
Mark Twain (upper left) received patents for three inventions: a scrapbook (upper right), memory improvement game (lower left), and adjustable strap for garments

Mark Twain was much more than an accomplished author. He was also an inventor who was awarded patents for three different innovative devices. Ironically, because of his inventions, this well-known author’s most profitable book was blank.

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Like Your TV? Thank Philo T. Farnsworth

Farnsworth inventor of the television
Philo T. Farnsworth with his television

One of the least-recognized yet most-influential inventors of the 20th century is unquestionably Philo T. Farnsworth. Born in Beaver, Utah on August 19, 1906, Farnsworth was a talented scientist from a young age. He began his inventing career in grade school by converting his family’s home appliances to electric power. During his high school years he won a national contest with his original invention of a tamper-proof lock. In his chemistry class in Rigby, Idaho, Farnsworth sketched out an idea for a vacuum tube that would revolutionize television—although neither his teacher nor his fellow students grasped the implications of his concept.

In 1927 he unveiled his all-electronic television prototype—the first of its kind—made possible by a video camera tube or “image dissector.” This was the same device that Farnsworth had sketched in his chemistry class as a teenager.

In later life, Farnsworth invented a small nuclear fusion device, the Farnsworth–Hirsch fusor, or simply “fusor”, employing inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC). Although not a practical device for generating nuclear energy, the fusor serves as a viable source of neutrons. The design of this device has been the acknowledged inspiration for other fusion approaches including the Polywell reactor concept in terms of a general approach to fusion design. Farnsworth held 165 patents, mostly in radio and television.

He died in 1971, largely in debt from legal expenses related to patent infringement claims.

A statue of Philo T. Farnsworth at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Fransisco
A statue of Philo T. Farnsworth at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco


Because When You’ve Got to Go, Every Second Counts

zipperKatherine Marie LeBeau received Patent #3,517,423 on June 30, 1970 for a “Fluid-Operated Zipper.” These are for the moments when the need to go is so great that you can’t spare the time or energy to manually operate your zipper. This amazing device makes use of “available fluids” and automatically releases the zipper, bringing relief to an otherwise-disastrous situation.

The instructions are unclear about what happens if you get caught outside in the rain.