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Patents: They Used to be Beautiful

Posted by Josh Rothman  August 1, 2012 04:15 PM

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For years now, economists and businesspeople have been arguing for reform of the patent system; usually, the focus is on the way that companies patent even the most obvious inventions, crippling innovation in the process. Now, writing for Wired’s Gadget Lab blog, Alexandra Chang points out an (arguably) even bigger problem: patent illustrations today are absolutely, even embarassingly, terrible.

When the Patent Office was founded in 1790, Chang writes, the drawings were professional, even artistic. But since then, “patent drawings have changed, degrading from detailed works of art to simplistic line drawings that barely qualify as illustrations.” Until the mid-twentieth century, patent illustrations were made by professional draughtsman, and “featured artistic techniques like shading, multiple perspectives and texture.” Meanwhile, “today’s patent drawings are often embarrassing doodles at best.” It’s simply cheaper not to hire a professional patent-art artist.

It’s not surprising, of course, that today’s patent drawings are bare-bones: Patents serve a purely utilitarian purpose, and even if the iPad looks terrible in its patent application, the device itself is still beautifully designed. What’s really surprising is how beautiful patents used to be. Why did inventors ever lavish so much attention on their patent drawings? Kevin Prince, whose book, The Art of the Patent, collects much of the best patent art, tells Chang that the culture of patenting used to be different. Nowadays, big companies churn out huge numbers of patentable inventions every year, and we’re used to living in an age of constant invention. “Back then,” Prince says, “getting a patent was really like, ‘Wow.’ You wanted it to represent you and represent you very well.” These days, by contrast, “no one cares.”

Check out Chang's great slideshow of hilariously bad patent art at Gadget Lab.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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