Perhaps the first significant thing Robert H. Rines did as a student at MIT was flunk out. Fortunately, he found his way back, emerging with a degree in physics and eventually returning as a lecturer whose pioneering courses in patent law filled scores of students with the entrepreneurial spirit. He’s also a renowned patent and intellectual-property lawyer who helped reform the federal patent system and founded New Hampshire’s only law school. He is an Emmy Award-winning composer and a tireless pursuer of the Loch Ness monster, as both the New Yorker and PBS’s Nova have attested. Rines is also an accomplished inventor in his own right, holding more than 100 U.S. patents for innovations ranging from radar- and sonar-imaging technology to his latest discovery: a procedure for using ultrasound waves to treat cataracts.
But 65 years ago, he was mopping floors at MIT’s geology lab. Rines had entered the Institute after his junior year at Brookline High School in Boston. Though academically gifted, he was still very young. After a year of grinding through his studies, he was ready for some fun. He told his father, David Rines, that he wanted to transfer to Harvard.
Rines’s father, a patent attorney with a degree from Harvard and clients at MIT, wouldn’t let his son give up so easily, so Rines plotted a different route out. He stopped going to class. He failed his courses, but his father still wouldn’t help him get into Harvard. Instead, he tossed him out of the house. In the end, all Robert Rines had to show for his troubles was the offer of a job as a custodian.
That experience transformed him into a serious student. He made up nearly all of his sophomore year in summer school and went on to work under Hans Mueller modulating high-frequency acoustic waves. A breakthrough his senior year led to joint credit with Mueller as coinventor of a light communication system.
After graduation and a stint as an Army Signal Corps officer during World War II, Rines returned home to draw the patent for his and Mueller’s light communication system and earn a law degree from Georgetown University in 1947.
This dual role as patent attorney and inventor gave Rines a unique – and dismaying – insight into the U.S. patent system. The courts were becoming increasingly hostile to the notion of intellectual property, and copyright infringement was rampant.