Robert H. Rines '42
Patent attorney and inventor started MIT the bumpy way.
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.
Rines approached the problem in his signature way: with supreme confidence in himself and in others. He created a course in patent law and, in 1963, began teaching it at MIT. Later, he added a graduate-level course that blended practice with theory. Through the courses, Patents and Inventions, he has helped students bring their innovations to the marketplace, says his former student Alexander Slocum ‘82, SM ‘83, PhD ‘85, a professor of mechanical engineering.
“Because he’s technically so competent when working with inventors, he’s able to catalyze them to develop their ideas to the fullest,” says Slocum. “He so deeply cares for people and for making sure the mechanism for innovation is kept alive.”
Rines’s courses grew in his imagination into an entire program, a law school even, that would teach legal principles and practices to future engineers and scientists. His vision was to produce a cadre of candidates for positions in governmental agencies and private industry whose technical knowledge would be supplemented by a thorough understanding of due process. Rines realized that vision in 1973 when he founded the Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire, the first law school in the world to specialize in intellectual property. By 1982, Rines and the center had helped persuade the U.S. Congress to create the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a centralized appellate court for patent cases.
At MIT, Rines continues to lecture, still helping students shepherd their ideas from workbench to marketplace. He has never accepted a salary from his alma mater. He says his work there is a gift to the institution that has nurtured him throughout his career.
“MIT was so nice to me, to pluck me out of high school and give me a chance, and then give me a second chance after I had booted it. And then having professors like Professor Hans Mueller,” Rines says. “This gave me something to believe in. This experience gave me a code. MIT gave me a hell of an education.”