A night to celebrate the US intellectual property system

Safeguarding intellectual property remains a principal mission of the federal government.

On Thursday at Nationals Park, I sat in my usual seats with a friend playing hooky from his job. What’s more exquisite than a day game in May under a cloudless sky? A lot of people around me were taking selfies.

Now Friday morning, I wonder how many selfie subjects could name the person who invented the camera in their phones? I can, because I chatted with physicist Eric Fossum at the  National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIFH) gala last night.

That took doing — not the chat, but getting to the gala. The latter required muscling through D.C. traffic from the ball park to the Press Club. There I ducked into the locker room to shower and change into formalwear, then back into the traffic to the National Building Museum.

In certain circles Fossum is well known. A 2011 NIFH inductee, he has won several big engineering and science awards. His work made it possible to fabricate a light-sensitive receptor and its processing electronics on a single chip. That enabled cell phones to become high-grade cameras.

A sponsors and co-founder of the National Inventors Hall of Fame is the U.S Patent and Trademark Office.  In his gala keynote agency chief Andrei Iancu extolled the U.S. intellectual property system. He called it the crown jewel of the nation’s economy, culture and history. It was not the first time he’s used that phrase publicly. A successful high technology patent attorney, Iancu got a 94-0 confirmation vote last year.

A USPTO spokesman mentioned that sometime within the next month  — no one knows the exact day or hour — the agency will grant America’s 10 millionth patent. The first was issued July 31, 1790.

The U.S. IP system — safeguarded by the USPTO — has attracted many brilliant people from around the world. Iancu himself emigrated from Romania at 12 years old and has not totally lost his accent.

That was a subtext to last night’s event. Maybe it’s more precise to say a system under which you are recognized and compensated for your brains and perseverance is a jewel in America’s general attraction worldwide.

Among this year’s inductees:

  • Ching Wan Tang was born in a primitive village in Hong Kong. He and Steven Van Slyke invented the organic light-emitting diode, or OLED. Do you like bright, thin screens that are part of a $23 billion industry? Thank them.
  • Arogyaswami Paulraj spent a career in the Indian navy and established national laboratories in India. But he came to Stanford University and gets credit for MIMO, which stands for multiple-input multiple output. If you use fast WiFi or LTE communications, and you do every hour you’re awake, thank Paulraj.
  • Sumitra Mitra was home-schooled in a remote part of India. Fast forward to her career at 3M, where she invented a nano particle dental restorative material. Six hundred million people have had their smiles restored as a result.

Bringing innovation to life

Inventors tend to work day and night. Mitra’s award made me think of a family episode, maybe it was the early 1970s, when my dad brought home a mayonnaise jar full of teeth. My sister and I shrieked with horror. Dad was an organic chemist and multiple patent holder, and worked many years in the field of dental composites. A big challenge was color matching. The jar of teeth was part of a project his lab was doing to tint composites to the many hues of actual teeth.

If I remember correctly, he told us they were cattle teeth, but we didn’t believe it.

The government encourages and pays for much of the innovation leading to patents. National Science Foundation funding supported work by three inductees: Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adelman worked out public key encryption in 1977 at MIT. They are the R, S and A in RSA. Arogyaswami also credits funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for giving him the space to develop MIMO.

For sure, most invention comes from corporate or individual funding. I was pleased to meet the guy, Stan Honey, who invented the yellow first-down line superimposed on TV during football games. Even the most fervent football fans tend to admit it that you can see the game much better on TV than in the mostly dreadful stadiums — i.e., Fedex Field — that dot the nation. Honey’s yellow line is one reason.

I asked Honey how the line was an invention, and not just a piece of programming. Basically for the way it follows a crowned field, stays underneath the player traffic and for a lot of other subtle reasons it is an invention.

The assemblage of brainpower in that room always inspires me. And I always find the inventors voluble. They are glad, almost eager to talk about what they have done. I thought, having just attended a baseball game, of the contrast with baseball players. How young, fabulously rich and utterly remote from mere mortals they are, protected by the iron cocoons that are professional sports franchises.

What would Bryce Harper say if I asked, “So, uh, how come yer hittin’ better leadin’ off, huh?”

Most inventors do not get rich from their creations. They work in corporations or universities, which often actually hold the patents. The best institutions at least honor and protect their inventors.

One attendee was the renowned Art Fry, inventor of the Post-It Note.  He still lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He told me 3M takes good care of him in retirement and added, “A whole lot of money would probably just be a distraction.”

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