Eccentric Engineer, Paperless issue

The Eccentric Engineer: Jerome Lemelson’s futuristic paperless office

How innovator Jerome Lemelson’s defence of his ‘paperless’ patents created piles of legal paper and whose ideas now underpin the modern office.

Jerome Lemelson is not a name familiar to many outside the world of patent litigation, which is a shame as his patents - over 600 in total - have helped shape the modern world in general and the paperless office in particular.

Lemelson had an interest in invention from childhood. His brother noted that he would spend 12 hours a day writing up new ideas in the notebooks he carried everywhere with him, and throughout the night he would continue to spring up and jot down further notes for consideration in the morning. In fact, Lemelson believed there were few things he could not improve or adapt, and this made him peculiarly unsuited to the ordinary world of work.

He received three engineering degrees and, having tried working for others, quickly realised he really wanted to be an independent inventor – coming up with ideas, patenting them and then licensing others to actually put them into effect. It was a radical concept. Many companies operated a ‘not invented here’ policy, refusing to use any idea that was not grown ‘in-house’, whilst others simply ignored patents in the hope that huge costs of litigation would keep impoverished inventors at bay.

However, Lemelson was cut from a different cloth. His inventions lay at the heart of the nascent digital age in the 1950s and were difficult to ignore. His automation patents included a revolutionary ‘machine vision’ system, enabling assembly line robots to identify and assess work put before them and even provide quality control on the work done. He also developed this into an automated warehousing system, the forerunner of today’s monolithic online logistics companies. Further patent licences followed, including a series for the manufacture of integrated circuits to Texas Instruments in 1961.

Perhaps inventing machine vision would have been enough for most engineers, but not for Lemelson. In the 1950s he had developed a system for video filing of data to be read on a monitor, instead of being printed out. This technology he licensed to Sony in 1974, which used it in its video and audio players. Three years later he even applied for a patent for a camcorder, but was rejected as the examiner considered the device ‘impossible’. From here he moved on to the foundation of paperless technology, word processing, licensing 20 of his innovations to IBM in 1981. By this time he was filing around a patent a month including everything from a talking thermometer for the blind to paint-spraying robots, cordless phones, fax machines and hospital monitoring systems. IBM even offered him a job running one of its research divisions, but he turned it down in favour of the independent life.

Yet not everyone was happy with Lemelson’s genius, or prepared to pay for it. As a fervent advocate of the rights of independent inventors and a man with money to put where his mouth was, he was not afraid of taking corporations to court over patent infringements. His was a life of litigation and, ironically, the piles of legal papers to go with that.

Less scrupulous corporations would take the view that if the cost of licensing a patent was more that cost of litigation, they were better off attacking the patent in the court where, according to Lemelson, the court would agree with the corporation and strike out the patent four out of every five times. This he believed had led to an ‘innovation crisis’ in America as corporations rode roughshod over rights of inventors.

The response to Lemelson’s almost incessant litigation, often involving multi-million-dollar claims, were suggestions from corporations that he used underhand tactics – the infamous ‘submarine patents’. Under the old US patent system, filed applications were confidential until they were granted. By filing ‘continuations’, in effect extensions, to patents that were still under consideration, a patent could be delayed, sometimes for years. During this time a company, blissfully unaware of this, might use the technology, only to then be suddenly presented with an inventor waving a patent, demanding royalties many years later. Having been using the technology, they didn’t have a leg to stand on. Such submarine patents were claimed to have netted Lemelson and his estate over $1.3bn.

However, no one ever managed to prove that the workaholic Lemelson ever deliberately delayed a patent; indeed it seemed more the case that, because he invented in so many spheres, the Patent Office, always a bureaucratic institution, simply failed to keep up, leading to delays of up to 10 years.

As Lemelson saw it, he and all inventors were stuck. Patent examiners slowed the process down, dividing inventions into numerous patents that had to be separately (and expensively) applied for, and then minutely examined them, often for years. In the meantime, corporations used the invention for free and eventually refused to pay royalties on the grounds that the patent was unreasonably delayed.

Lemelson did finally get to put his point of view on a federal Advisory Committee on patent issues from 1976 to 1979 and now, under modern US law, patents are published 18 months after being received, preventing claims from companies that a submarine has surfaced in front of them.  

Lemelson died in 1997, but the Patent Office was still granting his patents as late as 2009 (a facial-recognition vehicle security system). Doubtless, despite his contributions to paperless technology, the piles of litigation papers will continue to appear.

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