Patents that changed our world

Technical evolution is impossible without invention. But without patents, invention would be severely impaired because why would you (or anyone) spend vast sums of money and resources on search and developing new technology if you had no means of preventing others from copying it as soon as it goes public? That’s one of the main point of patents: to enable their owner to prevent others from copying their ne technology and, so, giving them a head start in the market, allowing the to recoup their R&D costs and make a profit before their competitors can muscle in on their market.

Many patents cover simple improvements on known technologies. However, others cover breakthrough technologies that have the ability to change our world forever. Purely for entertainment value, I thought I’d list some of the most famous patents and how they shaped the world we live in today. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, it’s just for fun.

Wright Brothers’ Airplane patent

The Wright Brothers filed a patent application for their “flying machine” in March 1903, following which, Orville and Wilbur made the first powered, heavier-than-air flight. Technologically, the Wright Brothers’ advancement owed to colloidal warping of the wing tips to their machine which, together with the rudder, gave it unprecedented aeronautical control and safety in the air. Without this technology, who knows: we could still be embarking on our annual trip to Benidorm by sailing the seas!. And we’d need a lot more than two weeks’ leave or that!

Fleming’s Penicillin patent

Of all the technological breakthroughs in the 20th century, none can match the discovery of antibiotics. The introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, which began the era of antibiotics, has been recognised as one of the greatest advances in therapeutic medicine. It may be less known that the initial recognition of its therapeutic potential occurred in the UK but, because of World War II, the USA ended up playing the major role in developing large scale production of the drug. Nevertheless, it was Alexander Fleming’s work that enabled this, and he is still lauded as the inventor of modern-day antibiotics.
Other notable pharmaceutical patents include aspirin, developed by Bayer, Viagra, developed by Pfizer, Prozac, developed by Eli Lilly & Company, Lipitor, developed by Pfizer, and insulin, developed by Frederick Banting, Charles Best and JJR Macleod and commercialised by the University of Toronto.

Ford’s Assembly Line patent

Ford’s assembly line pulled automobiles along an assembly line where auto-builders constructed it step-by-step, reducing chassis production time from over 12 hours to just over 90 minutes. However, the single-tsk monotony of the assembly line drove workers away, so Ford countered by introducing the $5 work day, effectively doubling worker’s wages.

Steve Job’s IPhone design patent

It is important to note here that design patens protect the outward appearance of a product, and are intended to protect aesthetic, rather than technical, innovation. For that reason, it’s often considered “weaker” protection compared with patents. But evidently not in this case! In 2012, the US Patent and Trade Mark Office warded Apple Inc. a design patent for the 2007 first-generation iPhone, which sparked a technological revolution with a lineage that can be seen everywhere you see a smooth, touch-screen format.

Edison’s Light Bulb patent

I don’t think you can write anything like this without mentioning Edison’s patent for “the “electric lamp”. In 1878, the creation of a practical, long burning light had eluded scientists for decades. With dreams of lighting up entire cities, Edison lined up financial backing, assembled a group of brilliant scientists and technicians, and applied his skills to creating an effective and affordable electric lamp. One significant innovation included in the patent is the bulb’s spiral filaments, and although we’re moving away from that technology now, at the time, it paved the way for the universal domestic use of electric light.

Tesla’s Power Transmission patent

Unlike Edison’s favoured direct current flowing in one direction, Nikola Tesla preferred alternating current (AC) which changes direction 50 to 60 times per minute. Using a transformer, AC voltage and current can be modified as needed to improve efficiency. In May 1988, Tesla received a patent for electric wireless transmission and, seven years later, he deigned the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. Tesla also created the Tesla coil widely used in radios, televisions and other electronics.
And, shortly after he died in 1943, the US Supreme Court decided that Tesla should be considered the ‘father’ of radio and wireless transmission.

Google’s PageRank Algorithm patent

Google owes its power to PageRank, once the most popular measure of SEO success. PageRank evaluated page importance based on the quality and quantity of the links that led to it. Therefore, a page could increase its position in the ranking by being linked to a better-ranked page. he first patent was filed in September 1998, but was later replaced by similar, more intuitive algorithms.

Marconi’s Wireless Telegraphy patent

Guglielmo Marconi is, essentially, the “father” of radio communications. He filed a patent application for his first wireless telegraphy invention in 1896. By1899, Marconi had transmitted signals across the English Channel between Britain and France, ad a year later he received a patent for “tuned or syntonic telegraphy”, which opened the airwaves by allowing stations to simultaneously send transmissions on different frequencies without interfering.

Hedy Lamarr’s Frequency Hopping

I couldn’t finish this blog without a nod to the beautiful, talented and hugely intelligent Hedy Lamarr.
She was a close friend of the aviation tycoon Howard Hughes, and even apparently suggested to him that the rather ‘square’ designs of his aeroplanes should be changed to a more streamlined shape.
Her most forward-thinking innovation occurred during World War II. Radio-controlled torpedoes were, in the early 1940s, an emerging technology in naval warfare. And Hedy discovered that they could easily be jammed and set off course. She thought of creating a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed. She and her friend, George Antheil (who was a musician) set about creating a device and method for transmitting radio signals from different frequency channels by synchronising a miniature player-piano mechanism with a radio signal generator. They were granted a patent for their designs in 1942 (US Patent No. 2,292,387), and this patent is a little bit of history.

The technology was, at that time, considered by the navy to be technically difficult to implement, but it was also very reluctant to accept inventions from outside of he military.

Whatever the reason, the invention was declined and the technology wasn’t revived until the late 1950s, when Lamarr’s frequency hopping concept began to be used in secure military communications.
Later still, it was these early frequency-hopping designs that formed the basis for the invention of spread-spectrum technology, which has, in turn, played a part in many modern wireless technologies, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA).

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