[NetBehaviour] Search for the most prolific inventors is a patent struggle

marc marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Fri Dec 9 16:54:27 CET 2005

Search for the most prolific inventors is a patent struggle
Tuesday December 6, 8:44 pm ET

What living person holds the most U.S. patents? In this era of 
information and lightning searches - when patents are both more valuable 
than ever and a source of raging controversy - you'd think such a simple 
question would be easy to answer.

You'd think somebody could push a button and get a list. But, uh, no.

America cannot identify its most prolific living inventors. We can't 
single out these people who should be considered national treasures.

I found this out because I wanted to interview the top 10 living patent 
holders for a story. I got in touch with the U.S. Patent and Trademark 
Office and asked for a list, thinking it was about the same as calling 
Billboard and asking for the top 10 songs.

As it turns out, the USPTO has but one guy who does statistical studies 
of the agency's 7 million-patent database. He last sorted for individual 
inventors in 1997, and has since been too busy with other projects to 
update that list.

I asked for help from a few commercial companies that do patent database 
searches. Thomson gave it a college try and for a while had a team 
working on my question. Others just said it couldn't be done. The 
question, with variables including inventors with same last names and 
multiple names on patents, is apparently a database operator's nightmare.

"The last five years include some 1 million granted U.S. patents," 
Thomson's Ryan Sheppard e-mailed me, explaining why Thomson couldn't 
pull it off, either. "Ten years of data would be roughly double that. So 
we are talking astonishingly large numbers of documents."

Anyone can go to the USPTO's website, type in an individual's name, and 
get a list of all the patents granted that person. But you have to start 
with a name. You can't set up an open-ended search that finds the names 
that appear most often. There's no easy way to let the database generate 
a list of top inventors.

Since the question can't be officially answered, I thought I'd hack at 
it in other ways. It's possible to use a variety of resources to tease 
out a few names who would likely make the top 10 list of living 
inventors. And that leads to some pretty wild surprises.

For more than 50 years, Thomas Edison has been considered the nation's 
all-time most prolific inventor. He has 1,093 patents to his name, 
including the electric light bulb and phonograph. He is to American 
innovation what Thomas Jefferson is to American politics.


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