10 million patents: Is this a great nation or what?

“Coherent Ladar Using Intra-Pixel Quadrature Detection.” It’s a new thing. That mouthful might not mean anything to you. But it means a lot of Joe Marron and his employer, Raytheon.

Marron, of Manhattan Beach, California, invented this quadrature deal. For this work, he was today awarded the nation’s 10 millionth patent. Raytheon is the patent owner.

President Donald Trump was to personally sign the patent this afternoon in the Oval Office. This evening Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Andrei Iancu preside over a celebration of this milestone near Mount Vernon.

That’s an appropriate place. George Washington signed the first patent on July 31, 1790.

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Ten million patents. What a measure of the nation’s inventive — you might say innovative — power. What a testimony to the farsightedness of the Founding Fathers. They knew the potency of a system that allows people and organizations to capitalize on their brain power. Where there’s no incentive, there’s no innovation.

As the nation has grown, the pace of invention has accelerated. As Iancu told me in our recent interview, it took 75 years after old George to reach the first million U.S. patents milestone. But from 9 million to 10 million, it’s only taken 3 years.

To someone like me, who has always been fascinated with machines, the seeming magic of microelectronics, to anything that flies, there’s a certain majesty in that body of work represented by those 10 million patents. Also, my dad had several patents to his name. Like Marron, he worked for industrial corporations that actually owned them.

Patents have finite lifetimes. But their benefits endure. Today several companies make something I’ll bet you’ve never heard of. It’s called the Janney coupler. Former confederate army officer Eli Janney got patent #138,405 in 1873 for a new way to couple railroad cars. Before the semi-automatic knuckle coupler, railroads used link-and-pin couplers. As a book I read 50 years ago stated, they held the cars together. But at the cost of thousands of railmen’s fingers or hands or arms. The Janney coupler and subsequent derivatives are used to this day.

Yes, USPTO has problems with backlogs, with disputes over patents granted. But on this day, we should also appreciate the large amount of intellectual energy expended by generation after generation of patent examiner.

As Iancu put it: “Sit back and realize the meaning of the collective 10 million patents on this country’s advancement and development.”

“This country.” Inacu was born in Romania. But he practiced aerospace engineering and then — highly successfully — patent law here in the U.S. before becoming USPTO director a few months ago. In talking to him, I got the sense he has a special regard for how the U.S., through its constitutional protections of intellectual property, not so much regulates as unleashes human intellectual energy. The energy that, for instance, took people from walking behind beasts of burden in muddy fields or picking cotton by hand to having the most productive, technologically intensive agriculture in the world.

Hats off to the inventors. Hats off to the people who enable people to reap the rewards from their inventions, and hats off to a nation that values brains.

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