A patent for an invention grants the inventor “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States.
Today, the USPTO issued the 10 millionth U.S. utility patent. The issuance of patent 10 million is an exceptional milestone. It is a timely and relevant opportunity to promote the importance of innovation, the ubiquity of intellectual property, and the history of America’s patent system.
To celebrate this auspicious event, we’re highlighting our favorite 10 patents of “everyday inventions!”
Before we dive into our list, some facts on patents and the patent system from the USPTO…
Each patent represents trial and error, determination, and the persistence that one inventor or a team of inventors have invested into bringing an idea to fruition.
- The U.S. is a world leader in innovation. Strong IP systems foster innovation, which in turn drives economic success. Ten million patents worth of innovation represents trillions of dollars added to our global economy.
- The rates of innovation and invention continue to accelerate. It took 121 years to issue the first million patents (1790-1911), but just four years to move from patent 8 million to patent 9 million (2011-2015) and three years to move from patent 9 million to patent 10 million.
- To commemorate the issuance of patent 10 million, the USPTO unveiled a new patent cover design during a special ceremony at South by Southwest (SXSW) on March 11, 2018. The new design will debut with patent 10 million.
- The United States has recognized the importance of granting limited monopolies for new inventions since the adoption of our Constitution in 1789. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 charges Congress…
“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
And now, Edison Nation’s 10 for TenM (in order of patent issuance):
#1: Safety Pin – U.S. Patent No. 6,281, Walter Hunt
Around the midpoint of the 19th century an inventor named Walter Hunt fiddled with a piece of wire.
Hunt was pacing the floor, worried about how to pay a $15 debt he owed to a friend and put food on the family table. Hunt invented the safety pin in three hours.
He made a coil in the center of the wire so it would open up when released. The clasp at one end was devised in order to shield the sharp edge from the user—hence the name safety pin. The idea became Patent No. 6,281, filed in 1849 and titled dress pins, soon to be called safety pins.
Having the sharp point of the pin protected by the safety clasp was a key advancement. He described the “perfect convenience of inserting these pins into the dress” without wounding the finger, or, for nursery use. Hunt sold his patent for $400 to W.R. Grace & Company, which made millions of dollars from the iconic pin.
#2: Toothbrush – U.S. Patent No. 18,653, H.N. Wadsworth
By the 1840s toothbrushes were being mass-produced across Europe, but the first U.S. patent for a toothbrush wasn’t filed until 1857, by H.N. Wadsworth (US Patent No. 18,653). In the eloquent text accompanying his patent application, Wadsworth explains the innovations in design that make his invention patent-worthy:
“The nature of my invention consists in separating the bunches of bristles more than in the common brush, so as to give more elasticity and enable them to enter between the interstices of the teeth – having the brush wide that it may be imperative on the part of the patient to brush the gums thoroughly; the brush is partly circular from heel to point the more readily to fit the circle or arch formed by the teeth, and from side to side the bristles are a little concave the more readily to adapt themselves to the oval form of the teeth; toward the point the bristles are shorter and intended to project as far as possible beyond the end and at as acute an angle as possible, while the back of bone ivory or other material is thin and rounded off so as to occupy as little room as possible, and forming almost a projecting point of bristles, particularly intended to force its Way far back in the mouth between the muscles of the cheeks, and jaws, and the back or molar teeth, and thoroughly free them from impurities, and while it keeps the teeth in these places clean, and highly polished, it also keeps the gums healthy and vigorous.”
#3: Paper Bag Machine – U.S. Patent No. 220,925, Margaret Knight
Margaret Knight invented a machine to make paper bags with a flat square bottom in 1868. A man named Charles Annan saw her design and tried to patent the idea first. Knight filed a lawsuit and won the patent fair and square in 1871.
Knight’s invention immediately had a huge impact on the paper industry – and paper bags began to proliferate throughout the retail landscape. To this very day, thousands of machines based on Margaret Knight’s idea are still used to produce flat-bottom paper bags. Knight didn’t stop there though; throughout her lifetime she would receive over 20 patents and conceive almost 100 different inventions – including a rotary engine, shoe-cutting machine and a dress and skirt shield. At the time of her death, an obituary described Knight as a “woman Edison.” In actuality, she was something greater – she was a woman inventor named Margaret Knight.
#4: Zipper – U.S. Patent No. 1,219,881, Gideon Sundback
In the decade between 1906 and 1914, while working for a number of different companies, Gideon Sundback made several meaningful contributions to the development of the zipper. While he did not come up with the original concept, he improved on the ideas of others, including Elias Howe, Whitcomb Judson and Max Wolff.
One of the key problems Sundback solved was to create a version of the zipper that didn’t pull apart easily.
In 1912, Sundback filed a patent application in 1912 for a “separable fastener” that had features reminiscent of Howe’s design; it operated on the principle of clasps fastened around beads sewn into the garment. Although its operation was smoother and more flexible than that of Judson-like fasteners that employed bulky metal chains, the beads of Sundback’s fasteners wore out too quickly for them to be considered a success. He went back to the drawing board.
In 1914, Sundback filed an application for a truly new “separable fastener,” which consisted of”stringers” permanently attached to beaded cloth, thereby eliminating the wear problem. A patent was granted in 1917 for what is clearly recognizable as a fully formed, modern zipper.
#5: Tupperware – U.S. Patent No. 2,765,831, E.S. Tupper
By a two-step process of invention, Earl S. Tupper created one of the most practical items of Americana to date: the airtight plastic food container that still bears his name.
A couple years after graduating from high school in 1925, Tupper set out to earn his fortune. After working for various Massachusetts operations, he decided that he could best use his agricultural experience by branching out into tree surgery and landscaping. From 1928 through the early 1930s, Tupper Tree Doctors ran a fairly successful landscaping and nursery business, until the Great Depression took its toll, forcing the company into bankruptcy in 1936.
Tupper found a job at Viscoloid, DuPont’s plastics division in Leominster, Mass. Although he worked there for only one year, Tupper always considered his formal training in design, research, development and manufacturing the true beginning of his education. In 1938, Tupper took this experience and founded a plastics company of his own.
The Earl S. Tupper Company soon changed the bulk of its business from subcontracting for DuPont to equipping American troops with gas masks and other items for World War II. It was only after the War that Tupper decided to focus on producing plastic consumer goods. This was a challenge, because plastics were still primitive, being generally brittle, slimy and smelly.
Tupper rose to the occasion first by inventing a method to transform polyethylene slag, a black, malodorous by-product of the crude oil refinement process, into a plastic that was resilient, solid and grease-free, but also clean, clear and translucent. This was a significant step forward in itself, allowing products that would not offend a homemaker’s senses or sensibilities. But Tupper also developed an air and watertight seal, modeled on those of paint cans, for containers made of his improved plastic. This created an entirely new alternative to tin foil for the short- or long-term storage of food.
By 1946, Tupper was marketing his home products, which now came in a range of bright colors: cases for cigarettes, tumblers for the bathroom, and containers for leftovers. But despite a glowing feature in Home Beautiful magazine the next year – “Fine Art for 39¢!” – the public remained unconvinced. Then, in 1948, Tupper discovered that two Stanley Home Product sales representatives were selling a great deal of his products. Stanley salespersons introduced their products to homemakers assembled at a “party” of a hostess’ home. Mindful of his own youthful door-to-door sales success, Tupper met with several Stanley distributors to combine forces. The result was Tupperware Home Parties, which is still the exclusive distributor of Tupperware®.
When Earl Tupper sold his company for $16 million in 1958, his combined Yankee ingenuity and sales savvy had already won him a form of immortality.
#6: Velcro – U.S. Patent No. 3,009,235, Georges de Mestral
Velcro was developed about 70 years ago after a walk in the woods.
Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, was curious to understand how cockleburs attached themselves to his clothes and dog. Mestral examined the plant under a microscope and discovered a jumbled network of tiny hooks across its surface. In nature, these hooks clasp onto loose threads of fabric or animal fur for enhanced seed dispersal but de Mestral saw potential for something else in nature’s design–a strong, yet adjustable, commercial fastener.
Today Velcro can be found on a wide variety of items, from sports equipment to car interiors. That patent expired on April 2, 1978, ushering in an age of hook-and-loop innovation.
#7: The Pocket Calculator – U.S. Patent No. 3,819,921, Texas Instruments
The patent for the pocket calculator, originally filed in 1967, was awarded to Texas Instruments on June 25, 1974. This miniature calculator (the world’s first) employed a large-scale integrated semiconductor array containing the equivalent of thousands of discrete semiconductor devices.
On September 21, 1972, Texas Instruments officially released the Datamath, its first commercial handheld calculator using a single MOS chip, to the retail market. It weighed 340 grams and measured 75 by 137 by 42 millimeters. The Datamath was priced at $120 and included a full-floating decimal point unit, so that the decimal could appear anywhere among the numbers on its eight-digit light-emitting diode (LED) display. It came with a rechargeable battery that could also be connected to a standard AC outlet. It used algebraic forms for its four basic functions—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—and enabled the user to press the keys as the problem progressed. At the heart of the calculator, the integrated semiconductor circuit (the silicon chip) contained all the necessary electronics for performing all functions, and it had ten digit keys, seven function keys, and a decimal location key.
#8: Post-It Notes – U.S. Patent No. 5,194,299, Arthur L. Fry
Art Fry was a new product development researcher at 3M when he learned of the adhesive microspheres that his colleague Spencer Silver had developed. The spheres were pressure-sensitive, but had a low degree of adhesion. He coated paper with the adhesive and made repositionable notes, and the concept of Post-it® Notes was created.
Born in Owatona, Minnesota, Fry graduated from the University of Minnesota and spent his career at 3M until his retirement in 1992. He made many technical contributions to 3M products, including art materials, tapes, decorative ribbon and gift wrap, and metal surface-finishing laminates. He was admitted into 3M’s Carlton Society in 1983, the highest honor given to a 3M scientist.
#9: iPod – U.S. Patent No. D469,109 (Design Patent), Bartley K. Andrew, et. al.
Apple’s MP3 player technically launched late in the game as there were already major players in the MP3 player scene. However, the iPod, with its “this is how it works” commercials, showed the public that all they needed to do is plug the device into a Mac’s Firewire port and iTunes did the rest.
Many of Apple’s patents involve the original iPod design and the follow-ups. These wide-ranging patents protected the classic click wheel design and provided Apple with an entirely new revenue stream during its pre-iPhone build-up.
And last, but certainly not least (albeit out of order)…
#10: The Light Bulb – U.S. Patent No. 223,898A, Thomas Alva Edison
Edison did not work on creating the incandescent electric light alone. He was assisted by Francis Upton, a 26-year-old graduate of Princeton University with a master’s degree in science. Upton provided the mathematical and theoretical expertise that Edison lacked. In October 1879, they produced a bulb with a platinum filament. But platinum was too expensive, so instead they found that a carbon filament provided a good light at a cheaper price. Although there were problems with the early incandescent lighting systems for years, Edison’s reputation as the world’s greatest inventor was firmly established.
In his 84 years, Thomas Edison acquired a record number of 1,093 patents (singly or jointly) and was the driving force behind such innovations as the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb and one of the earliest motion picture cameras. He also created the world’s first industrial research laboratory. Known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” for the New Jersey town where he did some of his best-known work, Edison had become one of the most famous men in the world by the time he was in his 30s.
While all of these patented inventions are now commonplace in most of our lives, their backstories are all very different…some resulting in tremendous success and notoriety for their inventors, others successful long after their patent was sold. They all have one thing in common though…they are all patented ideas from great inventors who were looking to solve a problem.
For more information on 10 Million Patents please visit this website: https://10millionpatents.uspto.gov/
- Arthur L. Fry, Post-it Notes. 2010. National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) Inductee. http://www.invent.org/honor/inductees/inductee-detail/?IID=412
- Asimov, Isaac, and Carrie Dierks. Why do we need to brush our teeth? Milwaukee, G. Stevens Pub., 1993. 24 p. (Juvenile).
- Augarten, Stan. Bit by Bit: An Illustrated History of Computers. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1984. Lucidly written and well-illustrated work contains diagrams and color photographs as well as black-and-white photographs and portraits. Includes an excellent history of calculating machines and a chapter on Kilby’s work. Excellent notes and bibliography.
- Bagley, K. (2009). Where It All Begins. Audubon, 111(5), 46-47.
- Braun, Ernest, and Stuart Macdonald. Revolution in Miniature: The History and Impact of Semiconductor Electronics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Thorough and clearly written volume covers the entire field of semiconductor electronics, explaining the place of the calculator in terms of historic developments. Most of the material is aimed at readers with some knowledge of scientific terminology.
- Burns, Matt. (Aug. 25, 2011). The 7 Iconic Patents That Define Steve Jobs. Tech Crunch. https://techcrunch.com/2011/08/25/the-7-iconic-patents-that-define-steve-jobs/
- Earl. S Tupper. n.d. Lemelson-MIT. https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/earl-s-tupper
- Elvin-Lewis, Memory and Walter H. Lewis. The use of Nature’s toothbrush: the chewing stick. Research Reports – National Geographic Society, v.16, 1975: 211-231.
- Eschner, K. 2017. Before Velcro’s Patent Expired, It Was a Niche Product Most People Hadn’t Heard Of. Smithsonian Smart News. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/velcros-patent-expired-it-was-niche-product-most-people-hadnt-heard-180962701/
- Giscard d’Estaing, Valerie-Anne. The second world almanac book of inventions. New York, World Almanac, 1986. 352 p.
- Golden, Irwin B. Teeth for your lifetime: a complete, easy-to-read, and understandable guide to a lifetime of dental health. Upland, Calif., Counterpoint Publications, c1993. 106 p.
- INVENTOR ARCHIVES: April. (2016). Inventors’ Digest, 32(4), 11.
- JOHN, K. (2014, August 18). Post-It Notes Inventor Stuck By His Creation. Investors Business Daily. p. A04.
- Katulka, L. (2008). STICKY BUSINESS. Hopscotch, 19(5), 36.
- Kim, Irene. “Functions at the Fingertips.” Mechanical Engineering 112 (January, 1990). A very informative and accessible essay about the work of Kilby, Merryman, and Van Tassel, combined with a survey of the multiple uses of handheld calculators by mechanical engineers in the last decade of the twentieth century.
- Lewis, L. (2013). Texas Instruments Introduces the Pocket Calculator. Salem Press Encyclopedia,
- Life of Thomas Alva Edison. n.d. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/edison-company-motion-pictures-and-sound-recordings/articles-and-essays/biography/life-of-thomas-alva-edison/
- McGrath, Kimberley A., and Bridget Travers, eds. World of Invention. Detroit, Gale, 1999. 1043 (See especially p. 805-806 for Toothbrush and Toothpaste).
- Panati, Charles. Extraordinary origins of everyday things. New York, Harper & Row, 1987: p.208-10.
- Petroski, H. (1993). ON DATING INVENTIONS. American Scientist, 81(4), 314.
- Pirtle, Caleb, III. Engineering the World: Stories from the First Seventy-Five Years of Texas Instruments. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2005. Nicely illustrated, anecdotal history of the revolutionary company.
- Prison, Suicide, & the Cold-Climate Hog (the sordid history of the toothbrush). n.d. The Museum of Everyday Life. http://museumofeverydaylife.org/exhibitions-collections/previous-exhibitions/toothbrush-from-twig-to-bristle-in-all-its-expedient-beauty/a-visual-history-of-the-toothbrush
- Reid, T. R. The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution. Rev. ed. New York: Random House, 2001. A thorough, detailed history of the invention and development of the microchip, combining history and technology on both the level of the general reader and the scientist.
- Stefan, J. (2010). A PIECE OF WIRE. Inventors’ Digest, 26(1), 34.
- Thomas Edison. n.d. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/thomas-edison
- USPTO – www.uspto.gov
- Velcro. (2006). New Scientist, 189(2542), 52.
- Weinbeger, Bernhard Wolf. An introduction to the history of dentistry, with medical, dental, chronology & bibliographic data. St. Louis, C.V. Mosby Company, 1948.
- Who invented the toothbrush and when was it invented? 2017. Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/tooth.html