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A Bigger Pain in the Ass

The Patent Files: Dispatches form the Frontiers of Invention

Amidst all the hype about “future firms,” “innovation management” and “technoleverage,” it’s easy to forget that innovation starts small. The slightly mad inventor tinkering in his cellar, once a cultural hero in the United States, has been overshadowed by the product development team working in a billion-dollar research park. But Edison started out as an itinerant telegraph operator, and even today, unconventional ideas are likeliest to pop up in disestablishmentarian places-or so David Lindsay is convinced.

In The Patent Files, a collection of columns from the alternative weekly newspaper New York Press, Lindsay proves that the oddball inventor types, the loners nursing their revolutionary gadgets in the face of skepticism, are alive and well. Lindsay’s guide to this subculture is the U.S. Patent Office, where “stacks of documents gather the smells of nervous men.” The patented ideas that succeed in the marketplace are vastly outnumbered by those that die on the drawing board, Lindsay finds, making the patent files a directory of eccentric, embittered geniuses.

His essays profile a few of these misfits in all their earnest, often hilarious humanity. Many have genuinely good ideas that simply haven’t caught on-at least not yet. Winston MacKelvie of Knowlton, Quebec, for example, dreamed up DrainGain, a tank that goes under the sink and captures the thermal energy in hot water that would otherwise dissipate in the sewer.

But not all the innovators Lindsay tracked down have a practical bent. For every MacKelvie there is a Joseph Newman, a Mississippi man who invented the plastic-covered barbell but failed to win a patent for his perpetual motion machine, made from magnets, coils of wire and 116 nine-volt batteries. Newman told Lindsay that Comet Shoemaker-Levy’s collision with Jupiter signified that the Apocalypse would begin on August 21, 1994. “I for one can find no cause to blame him” for being a doomsayer, Lindsay writes. “I mean, if you had invented a perpetual motion device, developed a unified field theory and discovered that you were the Messiah…wouldn’t a trivial detail like a rejection from the Patent Office confirm for all time the monkeyshine of man?”

In Lindsay’s lighthearted essays, which climax with his own adventures in intellectual property law, inventions and patents become portraits of their times and of their doggedly determined authors. Lindsay relates in a 1996 column that as “a perverse little thought experiment…[and] protection in an age of genetic racketeering,” he once sought a patent on himself. When he found out how much the paperwork would cost, he decided instead to copyright himself as a musical composition, with the frequency of the tones based on the sequence of nucleotides A, C, G, and T in his DNA. When the Register of Copyrights thwarted even this attempt-on the grounds that Lindsay’s DNA was not an “original and creative product of human authorship”-he remained unfazed. His comeback line could be the underground inventors’ motto: “What doesn’t kill me makes me a much bigger pain in the ass.”

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