I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


26 February 2014

Semprius and its miniature solar cells

The world's smallest solar cells, with a world record efficiency of 35%, are being tested around the world by Semprius, a company based in Durham, North Carolina. 25% efficiency is usually the best.

I learnt about it in an interesting, and detailed, article in the 22 February issue of The Economist, Solar energy: stacking the deck. Briefly, it explains that by using four layers of different materials, all picking up sunshine at different bandwidths, and with each such stack having a pair of lens at the top to focus the light, much of the sunlight is converted into useful energy.

The normally high costs of the materials are greatly reduced by having tiny stacks, each the size of a pencil point. A solar panel with an area of 125 square metres would have half a million. An ingenious printing technique is used to place the cells on the panel.

The research is attributed to work led by Professor John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A patent by him and six others for the university, US 7932123, published in 2011, looks very relevant for the stacking concept. It is 80 pages long, of which nearly 60 are drawings. Here are just two of them.

There are (at the time of writing) 12 entries for Semprius on the Espacenet database if US documents are requested. These include Surface-mountable lens cradles and interconnection structures for concentrator type photovoltaic devices and High concentration photovoltaic modules and methods of fabricating the same which both sound very relevant to me.

It all sounds very promising.

25 February 2014

Free patent competitor intelligence

Free information on what your competitors are doing is always welcome. This post is about a few patent websites that I am aware of -- I'm not pretending it's comprehensive. I'd be pleased to hear of other (free) tools and methods.

I have just came across a new one for me, the Latest.Patents.com website, which links to weekly listings of newly published US patent applications or of grants by many technology companies, with that link being to documents on the US Patent and Trademark Office website. Other companies can be find on the side. On the morning of the 5 February, in the UK, I found grants from the 4th already listed. They link to copies on the USPTO official website. 

This effort, by Hunter Strategies LLC, while very commendable, is only useful if you are content to look through the titles given in those lists. It relies on useful titles (which is likely in those software and electronic areas). I would be a little wary of the lists of published applications -- companies are permitted to omit their company name in US published applications, and will on occasion do so.

If you want a simple analysis of the companies in a particular technology area, the Patentscope database by WIPO is useful. The PCT "World" patent applications can be searched by for example the International Patent Classification (IPC) classes, or by keywords, to give a list of results. By clicking on "Analysis" at the top of the list, the top ten companies and the top ten inventors, and the number of hits, are listed. It's a good way to identify their leading inventors. You could for example combine a search for a company with a keyword or a broad class to detect the inventors. You could also do it the other way round -- ask for a company, see the broad classes.

Identifying those broad IPC classes is, for me, best done by using the Espacenet database's Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) schedules. The CPC is a more precise version of the IPC. I would hesitate to use a precise class for a subject (unless very straightforward) as it's easy to miss a patent document. I've noticed how often, especially in software, the classes vary for the same topic. Entering keywords enables identifying broad classes, such as A41, for wearing apparel, a class which is common to both IPC and CPC.

Espacenet enables these classes to be transferred to a search mask to search a vast collection of patent documents. For instance, I can click the box next to A41, and then (on the left) on "Copy to search form". This means that you can add further parameters.

For example, I might be interested in wearing apparel activity between 2005 and 2013. By inserting 2005:2013 in the "publication date" field the results are limited to those dates. Patents from numerous countries then appear -- over 30,000. In fact you'll only get the most recent 500.

You can then limit further by asking to "refine" and inserting for example

USB [US granted patents] in the "publication number" field [US gives you applications and designs as well, USA gives you published applications only]


scarf or scarves

in the "title" field. This reduces the number to 47.

At this point, the only way to analyse the results, other than by scanning the data, is to sort them by applicant name. This is very crude, and does not work for more than a small number (you're still limited to the 500, by the way) and it would be helpful if an analysis tool was available, so that the results could be interpreted as tables or piegraphs showing the leading applicants or classes. In this case, all were by private applicants -- useful to know, perhaps.

Maybe someone will develop / has developed a tool that can provide such an analysis ?

For a more robust effort, of course, you need to be prepared to pay the experts, who can use priced databases. 

22 February 2014

One-handed cutlery and World War I

World War I resulted in numerous one-handed soldiers, and many inventions for one-handed cutlery were patented as a result.

There is a patent class, A47G 21/08, for "serving devices for one-handed persons". This can be used to find, in the Espacenet database, 17 British patents between 1908 (as far back as coverage goes) and 1922. The earliest of these were only applied for in 1915.

British patents at the time usually gave the inventor's profession, Hence we have GB107915, applied for in 1916, which is by Edward Geoffrey Fisher, a Canadian private. It is illustrated below.

GB136966 was by Herbert William Duck, a farmer, and was applied for in 1919, and is illustrated below. 

The occupations vary widely -- cinema proprietors and a surgeon are among them, though they are mainly engineers or, oddly, commercial agents. 

Fore the same 1912-22 period there were 12 American patents, half of which date from the USA's involvement in the war from 1917. One such was particularly elaborate. It was by Charles Young of Maine, his Holding device for one-armed persons, illustrated below. 

For the same period there are also 11 French patents, all dating from 1915 onwards. 

These patents are sad to look at and to think of, but do show how patents provide a source of information for a grim chapter of history. 

20 February 2014

WhatsApp and patents

Facebook has just announced it is taking over WhatsApp Inc. for $19 billion, $4 billion in cash and the rest in shares. WhatsApp is a very popular app which means you avoid paying text fees on your smart phone: it uses the Internet to relay the messages, which includes attached images. It costs just $1 to subscribe to, although there is a free option.

The valuation sounds incredible, yet Facebook founder Mark Zuckenberg apparently thinks he has a bargain. Facebook is declining on PC platforms, so it makes sense to want to migrate to phones.

WhatsApp was launched in 2009 by ex-Yahoo employees Jan Koum and Brian Acton. They wanted to make it the biggest cross-platform messaging service in the world. It has also been described as the biggest social network you'd never heard of (sure, I'd never heard of it, but then I'm the wrong generation). It does to SMS (text and its attachments) what Skype did to international calls.

The company claims that over 450 million use it every month, with 1 million new subscribers a day. The software it uses is described in a US patent application published in November 2012 in the names of Koum and Acton, Multimedia transcoding method and system for mobile devices. It has not yet been granted patent protection (to me, making the valuation by Facebook all the more extraordinary). Below are two of the drawing pages.

The registration in 2011 of WhatsApp as a US trade mark is certainly valuable, though.

There may be trouble ahead, though. Two companies have taken WhatsApp to court, alleging infringement of US patents.

In October 2012 Intercarrier Communications LLC alleged patent infringement of Inter-carrier messaging service providing phone number only experience, illustrated below.

In October 2013 Israeli company Triplay alleged patent infringement of Messaging system and method, illustrated below.

There is an interesting Wikipedia article on WhatsApp.

17 February 2014

Skateboard inventions with a difference

Skateboards have been around for decades, with the earliest patent with the word in the title being Skate board provided with longitudinally adjustable wheel carriage units by Louis Bostick of California, filed in 1965. The sport actually goes back a few years earlier. Over 700 US patent specifications since have used that word in the title. This post is on some of the more unusual ones.

There's for example Control system for a skateboard type device by Samuel Shiber for Saroy Engineering of Illinois, filed 1975:

Combination cycle seat-skateboard by Charles Persons II and Robb Harst, both of Ohio, for Persons-Majestic Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts, filed 1978, the idea being that the seat part of the bicycle can be detached to form a skateboard (see the tiny wheels underneath the saddle):

Radio controlled skateboard with robot by Steven Derrah of Rhode Island, filed 1997:

Solar skateboard by Chien-Ching Su of Taiwan, filed 2006:

Motorized skateboard  by James Hawkins of California, filed 2009:

Self-propelled skateboard by Craig Gager of London, UK, filed 2010:

Finally, only published a few weeks ago, is Electric skateboard by Aaron King for Redrock Boardshop, both of Florida, with a very cool looking drawing showing it in action. Looks like he's on his way to work, though actually he has batteries in his backpack (which would be heavy, I think ?).

11 February 2014

Amazon and its inventions

I have just been reading an entertaining, yet chilling account of Amazon's drive for global dominance of e-retailing in the New Yorker article Cheap words: Amazon is good for customers, but is it good for books ? by George Packer. The point is that customers may benefit from good prices, but everyone else loses.

Packer sets out a vision of a company that only sees books (or anything else) as commodities, which it sells as cheaply as possible in order to obtain data on potential customers for other products. This was true as far back as 1995, judging from a reported conversation with Jeff Bezos at a book fair. In fact books now only make up 7% of its sales.

Central to Amazon;s appetite for providing and searching through data, and cutting costs, is of course software. In the USA (but not Europe) software is patentable. This means that an entire approach is blocked for the term of a patent (currently a maximum of 20 years), unlike copyright, which is meant to block deliberate copying but allows fresh code to be written that would do the same thing.

An early example of this is the one click ordering system. The heart of this is in a patent filed in 1997, the Method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network. One of the illustration pages is given below.

By remembering data about the purchaser, the patent argues, sensitive information is not made liable for interception., It also makes it more likely that the order will be completed, as many abandon an order if it is complicated to place the order.

When Barnes and Noble tried to use a system that worked much the same way in the Christmas season of 1999 they were taken to court, and there was an undisclosed settlement in 2002.

Amazon is responsible for about 1400 granted US patents and over 40 Design Patents, mostly to do with its Kindle® e-readers. Newly published US patent applications and grants can be viewed by using the Latest Patents website. The fact that so few applications are published in the company name suggests to me that they deliberately leave the name off those publications (which they are perfectly entitled to do under US law), showing the danger of relying on patent information if you are not aware of how the system works.

So far the company doesn't seem to be publishing patent specifications on the suggested drones for individualised delivery of packages.

Amazon's patents include Presenting alternative shopping options, where the illustration shown below includes determining the profitability of options.

The technology behind the Kindle® reader is from a patent filed in 2006, the Handheld electronic book reader device having dual displays, with the dual display idea having later been abandoned. There have been at least five Design Patents for the look. Those with the title "Electronic media reader" or "Touch-screen user interface" are listed here.

Those US patent specifications by Amazon incorporating in their title "customer(s)", "fulfillment" or "merchant(s)", the name Amazon gives to the companies providing product, are listed here. If you can get through the language some at least make interesting reading.

8 February 2014

Facebook and social networking inventions

Facebook has published numerous software patent specifications about social networking. Here are a few that show the way the company's mind works.

At the time of writing, there are 108 US patent applications published in the name of Facebook that mention "social network[ing, etc.]" in the title or summary. The software code is not required, only algorithms or other information explaining how the software works. This means that the novice has some chance of understanding the point behind it.

Some may sound a bit spooky, or intrusive. Here are a few. Some have already been published as B, granted patents, in which case I link to that B rather than the A document. Grant does not necessarily mean that the invention has been incorporated into the way Facebook works.

Promoting participation of low-activity users in social networking system

Methods and systems for tracking of user interactions with content in social networks

Crowdsourced advertisements sponsored by advertisers in a social networking environment

Providing relevant notifications based on common interests between friends in a social networking system

Suggesting connections to a user based on an expected value of the suggestion to the social networking system

Inferring user profile attributes from social information (as illustrated below)

Tracking effects of an ad impression on other activity in a social networking system

Predicting user responses to invitations in a social networking system based on keywords in user profiles

Leveraging information in a social network for inferential targeting of advertisements (as illustrated below)

I haven't used Facebook since, when trying to set up an account in order to see pictures that were only visible to account holders, it immediately published my date of birth on the Web even though I hadn't specifically authorised that to happen. I'm not keen to encourage identity theft, and also felt it was very intrusive. I closed the account right away. It is, of course, the kind of data they use to infer information about people to set up possible connections, to target advertisements and so on. Knowing your income would be useful, for example...

What about Inferring household income for users of a social networking system, anyone ?

6 February 2014

Snowboarding inventions

Snowboarding was influenced by surfing. In many areas you don't to surf in winter, and surfboards and snowboards both lack poles to help you move, unlike skis.

The first big patented invention here is usually credited to Sherman Poppen who filed in 1966 for his Surf-type snow ski. You were supposed to cling to a rope. He began manufacture of his Snurfer. Below is its illustration page.

Jake Burton Carpenter, who broke a finger while using a Snurfer, is credited with improvements to the snowboard concept -- he made it wider, provided high back bindings, and a steel edge to help turning. His first patent, filed in 1990, is for a Snowboard binding system, as illustrated below.

There have been plenty more since -- Google Patents lists over 60,000. Probably not all are new, and some may be of doubtful use. Others are more useful. Some may lead to yet another variant in sport.

What about the Seated skiing or snowboarding device, illustrated below.

Or the Wrist guard for snowboarding, illustrated below.

And then there's the Training aid for snowboard maneuvering, which features a miniature snowboard, as shown below. Let your fingers do the walking...

Here is a list of snowboarding patents since 2005 published through the PCT "World patent" system.

1 February 2014

John Adair, an Irish baker and inventor

It is very common to know little about an inventor. John Adair, a baker from Waterford, Ireland, is an exception.

The 1901 Irish census website tells us that he was aged 58, born in Kildare, married to Elizabeth, 55, born in Waterford. John's occupation was given as "inventor and patentee" although he was in fact a baker, so it is clear that he was proud of his inventing. Two daughters, one a nurse, also lived in the household. All were listed as Society of Friends (Quakers), as the Irish census asked for that information. A "domestic servant" rounded out the household.

Adair applied for 26 published British patents between 1895 and 1931 on a variety of topics, including tyres (two of which were also patented in the USA), blinds, coupling of railway vehicles and making flour. He must be one of the most prolific Irish inventors ever. His numerous patents give useful address details. By 1905 he had moved to Dublin, and by 1909 to Stratford on Avon -- very helpfully, he states in several patents that he is late of Waterford -- and later moved to various addresses in Somerset and Devon. In most of them he states that he is a baker. Interspersed by three other inventors, this is a list of John Adair's patents, as taken from the Espacenet database.

However, that database only covers British patents from 1893 onwards, and as the London Gazette shows he was also responsible for patent 2378 in 1870, for a baker's oven. That was found using Google -- but what you're not told is that the Gazette stopped indexing patents in 1878. From then on, it's a matter of searching the paper annual indexes. It shows how complicated searches can be: not everything is on the Web, and getting expert help is vital, as the coverage in the database and the gazette cannot be guessed at.

Here are a couple of drawings from his patents.

There was for example GB 12890/1901, to prevent the pilfering of letters from letterboxes.

Then there was GB 30006/1909, for conveying coal.

There is a photograph of John Adair's bakery at 18 Lady Lane, Waterford, on Flickr.

His last patent gives his address as Newton Abbot, Devon, so the John Adair who died there in the Newton Abbot district, aged 96, in 1936, is probably him, though if he was 58 in 1901 he should have been 93 or so.

Did John Adair make money from his inventions ? That is something that the patent system is silent about.