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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.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

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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