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In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was conducting experiments with a Crookes tube – basically a glass gas bulb that gives off fluorescent light when a high-voltage current is passed through it.  Despite the tube being shielded by heavy black cardboard, Roentgen noticed that a screen made of fluorescent material 9 feet away had turned green. The cardboard stopped all visible light, leading Roentgen to conclude that some hitherto unkown rays that couldn’t be seen.  He began to experiment with the new rays, finding that they could pass through certain objects, but not others. Not knowing what kind of ray he was dealing with, exactly, led him to call it an X-ray. The name stuck. To test his discovery, Roentgen made an X-ray image of his wife Bertha’s hand, clearly showing the bones of her hand and her wedding ring.  So alarmed was his wife at the image of her bones that she’s reported to have gasped, “I have seen my own death.” My name…


The United States Patent and Trademark Office grants “to the patentee . . . the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention . . . .”  If you want to sell a product or license someone else to, having a patent is big help. A patent can’t stop people from ripping you off, but it does give you a legal weapon to seek redress.  That is, if you wouldn’t spend more time and money doing that than you’d lose if you just left it, as is often the case when knock-offs come from overseas. Anyone can patent their novel and non-obvious design, but some notable names chose to release their ideas to the world without patent.  Bonus fact: The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 excludes the patenting of inventions useful solely in the utilization of special nuclear material or atomic energy in an atomic weapon.


It’s been a million years since man learned to control fire, but only 200 years since we’ve had handy little wooden sticks topped with incendiary material to get them started.  We had to wait for a particular British man, one John Walker, to be born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1781, apprentice under the chief surgeon in town, discover he couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and decide to study chemistry and become a pharmacist instead.  He was working on an experimental paste that might be used in guns when the wooden instrument he was using to mix the substances in his paste burst into flames. This accidental breakthrough led him to create simple matches made from cardboard dipped in sulfur and tipped in a mix of antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate and gum arabic, which sold like hot cakes in his hometown.  After he swapped the cardboard for into three inch long wooden splints, he soon received offers of purchase from neighboring towns and started selling more and more. Walker never patented his invention. Was he magnanimously giving mankind his new creation? Not so much. Walker realized that his invention was flat-out dangerous. The burning sulfur coating would sometimes drop from the stick and could land on the floor or even the user’s clothes or skin.  Copies sprang up all over, like a version marketed by Samuel Jones of London, who called his matches “Lucifers.”


Everyone needed fire for candles, oil lamps, cooking stoves, industry, everything, and they wanted matches.  Match-making became a common trade across England, with hundreds of factories spread across the country. There, workers dipped treated wood into a phosphorus concoction, then dried and cut the sticks into matches 12 to 16 hours a day.  Like many other poorly paid and tedious factory jobs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, match makers were predominantly women and children. Their dangerous working conditions had a unique hazard – phossy jaw. The condition causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay, resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes the loss of the jaw.  This gruesome and debilitating condition came from inhaling white phosphorus fumes all day and afflicted 1 in 10 workers as much as five years after exposure. So maybe forgoing the patent was a smart move for Walker after all.


Jump forward a hundred years or so and young people were facing a different health crisis – polio.  While polio wasn’t a raging epidemic, as it seems to be remembered — for perspective, children were 10 times more likely to die as the result of an accident — but it struck fear into the public because it appeared without warning and researchers were unsure of how it spread from person to person.  In 1938, a year into his second term as president, Franklin Roosevelt helped to create the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later renamed the March of Dimes Foundation, which funded clinical trials in a desperate search for a cure or preventative.

While most scientists believed that effective vaccines could only be developed with live viruses, Jonas Salk developed a “killed-virus” vaccine by growing samples of the virus and then deactivating them by adding formaldehyde so that they could no longer reproduce.  When injected into the bloodstream, the vaccine triggered the immune system to make protective antibodies, without the need to introduce a weakened form of the virus into healthy patients. After successfully inoculating thousands of monkeys, in 1952, Salk began the risky step of testing the vaccine on humans, namely the human he married and the three small humans they’d made.  With this positive outcome, double-blind studies, in which neither the researcher nor the subject knows if they got the new drug or a placebo, were ordered. This was actually the first time double-blind testing was used, though it’s now the standard for proper research. People eagerly volunteered to receive Salk’s vaccine. On April 12, 1955, the day the Salk vaccine was declared “safe, effective and potent,” legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Morrow interviewed its creator and asked who owned the patent. “Well, the people, I would say,” said Salk in light of the millions of charitable donations raised by the March of Dimes that funded the vaccine’s research and field testing. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”  One assumes corporate lawyers everywhere began scrambling to see if you could patent the sun. Imagine the license fees! According to Forbes, a patent on the vaccine would have earned Salk $7B.


Not everyone believed Salk’s killed-virus vaccine was the right way to go.   One such was Polish-born virologist Albert Sabin, who was developing an oral “live-virus” polio vaccine.  The Sabin vaccine was also easier to give than Salk’s, an important feature when you’re trying to innoculate entire schools, towns, and even countries, and its effects last longer.   The Sabin vaccine worked in the intestines, where the virus multiplied, to block the poliovirus from entering the bloodstream. That allowed the vaccine to break the chain of transmission of the virus and create the possibility that polio could be completely eradicated.  Once Sabin’s oral vaccine finally became available in 1962, it quickly supplanted Salk’s injected vaccine. Between the two vaccines, the number of polio cases worldwide dropped and kept dropping. In 1998, there were 350,000 cases; by 2013, there were about 400. And one more thing about Sabin, who also developed vaccines against  encephalitis and dengue fever and investigated possible links between viruses and certain cancers, Sabin also refused to patent his vaccine.


Now that you know you won’t contract polio, you can continue on with your childhood, the age of velcro sneakers, gold star stickers, and chicken McNuggets.  Future food scientist Robert Baker was a boy when the Great Depression cut the legs out from under Americans, especially in the plains states where years of irresponsible agriculture led to the dust bowl.  The Baker family, which had raised fruit in the summer and chickens in the winter, had to get good at making a small amount of food feed as many people as possible. This way of thinking stayed with Robert through his years at Cornell University, where he majored in pomology, the study and cultivation of fruit.  He graduated in 1943 and went to work for the Cornell Cooperative Extension as a liaison between the university research centers and local farm communities. WWII had increased the demand for chicken, and poultry farmers had developed ways to grow their output, including advancements in feed and genetics, but when the war wound down, so did the demand.  Farmers didn’t want to give up income by decreasing production, so they had to find ways to increase the market for chicken.


From simple old-timey markets to mid-century grocers, chickens were only sold whole, which people were finding increasingly inconvenient, as opposed to beef and pork, which came in cuts.  Meanwhile, Baker had begun to develop more of an interest in the other aspect of his family’s business – chicken raising. He was hired by Cornell as an assistant professor in Poultry Science, tasked with finding ways to encourage people to eat more chicken.  He and his team worked in a lab filled with grinders, blends, and de-boning machines to develop, test, and taste new chicken products. They created chicken bologna, chicken sausages, chicken hot dogs, and chicken patties. [Forrest Gump quote] They also developed the “broiler chicken,” a two to three pound chicken more attractive to consumers and quicker to produce for farmers, and found ways to encourage people to eat more eggs.  His most important achievement was a method that “processed chicken,” which allowed the meat to be shaped in any way possible. This gave birth to Baker’s greatest invention: the chicken stick. Baker and a student had figured out how to keep ground chicken meat together and get a delicious batter to adhere to it. First, they put raw chicken in a grinder with salt and vinegar, to take out the moisture. Next, they added powdered milk and mashed up grains. This kept it all together. Then, they molded the processed chicken into sticks, froze them, dipped them in an egg batter and cornflake crumbs, and froze them again.  They developed a package and put it in the local freezer shelves. Within six weeks, they were selling two hundred boxes a day. 


If I’m saying Baker invented the chicken nugget, why isn’t his name as well known at Ray Croc or the MacDonalds brothers?  Baker didn’t patent his chicken sticks, or anything he or his team created. Said Robert Gravani, a Cornell professor who studied under Baker, “He literally gave ideas away, and other people patented them.”  Plus, Cornell published the whole process and all of his recipes in the April 1963 issue of Agricultural Economics Research, a publication that was distributed for free to over five hundred companies, one of which was McDonald’s.  In 1977, the McGovern Report was released, urging Americans for the first time to eat less red meat. Burgers took a real PR hit and sales dropped. People wanted chicken, and McDonald’s wanted their money, so they began to make their own frozen breaded chicken product using Baker’s process, though their shapes are called a bell, boot, ball, and bow.  In March 1980, fifteen Knoxville, Tennessee McDonald’s debuted a new product, the Chicken McNugget. It set sales records and, soon, the chicken nugget was at every McDonald’s worldwide. Over 2 billions servings, which can have between 4 and 20 nuggets apiece, are sold each year, which is not doing us any favors with the obesity epidemic, which is ironic when you remember it came from a desire to make scarce food go farther.  Though Baker never saw a share of the revenue from those billions of sales, he did get inducted into the American Poultry Hall of Fame in 2004, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice.


Patrons got mini about people learning to cook poisonous things


So thanks to [] for shining some light on that.  Speaking of light, let’s talk lightbulbs. Not the incandescent bulb created by Thomas Edison and his team.  Edison was big on getting patents for everything, even things he didn’t event. No, we’re talking about the successor of the incandescent bulb, the LED.  A light-emitting diode is an electric component that emits light when connected to direct current, which is called electroluminescence. LEDs can emit light in any color of the visible spectrum, as well as in infrared and ultraviolet.  They leave older bulbs leagues behind when it comes to size, lifespan, and energy efficiency. They almost didn’t get invented, though.


In 1907, a British experimenter in Marconi labs noticed that when 10volts is applied to carborundum (silicon carbide) crystal, it emits yellowish light.  Not much light, though. Enough to see, but not enough to see by. He put it aside and forgot about it. Twenty years later, the same thing happened for two other researchers, but with zinc sulphide with copper and a few years after that in a Russian research lab.  Again and again, the electroluminescence was interesting, but not useful, so back on the shelf it went. Another thirty-odd years passed, when engineers with Texas Instruments found that that gallium-arsenide diode emits infrared light every time it is connected to current.  That was useful, but you still couldn’t see it. Thankfully, the following year over at GE, Nick Holonyak Jr. developed the first light-emitting diode that emitted light in the visible part of the frequency range. Specifically it was red. Holonyak wasn’t trying to create a light that would replace incandescent bulbs.  He was trying to make a laser or as he described it “devices that didn’t exist until we made them.” 


At first Light-emitting diodes were very expensive, some US$200 per piece.  Because of that, they were used as indicators only in highly professional laboratory equipment.  Fairchild Semiconductors succeeded in 1970s to reduce cost of individual LED to 5 cents by using planar process in production of semiconductor chips for light emitting diodes. By using innovative methods of packaging and a planar process of chip production, Fairchild made LED into a commercial product with variety of uses.  LEDs were now poised to infiltrate our lives, from replacement for incandescent and neon lights, as elements in seven-segment displays, in large RGB screen displays, in semaphores and other visual signals, in calculators, watches and in flashlights. Infrared LEDs are used in units for remote control in TVs, DVDs and other places that need wireless control.


Holonyak had an instinct, all the way back at the beginning of the LED’s history, that these little, efficient sources of light could replace the clunky incandescent bulbs that illuminated the world back then.  He did not think it would take 50 years, though. Just as well he didn’t patent it or that would have been a helluva wait for a return on investment. If you know why he didn’t, please contact me here at the studio, because nothing I read bothered to mention it.  While Holonyak’s colleagues believed he deserved the Nobel prize for his invention, the modest inventor said “It’s ridiculous to think that somebody owes you something. We’re lucky to be alive, when it comes down to it.”


British genericization Laszlo Biro invented the ballpoint in 1938.  Unique reason not to collect on invention


When the ballpoint pen were first offered for sale in the US in 1945, hundreds of people lined up to buy them despite the fact that they cost more than $150 in today’s dollars.  $150 for something you’ve already lost three of this morning. So badly did people want to get rid of their fountain pen, I guess. Fountain pens, which many have never seen and most of us have never used, required frequent refills and leaked like a pregnant woman sneezing.  Within 15 years, the pens cost 1/10 of what they initially did and in the years since, the pen has changed the way people write. Literally. Handwriting experts say that cursive writing doesn’t flow as naturally with ballpoint pens, since they require more pressure.


The invention was given to us by Lazslo Biro and may even have helped save Biro’s life and that of his family during World War II.  Biro wasn’t really the first to come up with a ballpoint pen, but his was the first to catch on. John Loud, an American lawyer, patented a version of the ballpoint in 1888, but while the pen could write on leather and cloth, it couldn’t write on paper, so I’d hazard he shouldn’t even have bothered.  When the Hungarian Biro invented his version of the ballpoint pen in 1938, he was working as a journalist and got the idea for the ballpoint pen from newspaper printing presses, whose ink dried much more quickly than fountain pen ink by using a rolling cylinder. Cylinders are bi-direction, forward and back, but a pen tip would need to be omnidirectional to be useful.  The inspiration to solve that question actually game from a group of children playing marbles outside Biro’s window. Bíró patented the invention in Paris in 1938.


A few months after Biro signed a contract with a business partner to produce and market it his ballpoint pens, he had to flee Hungary.  Biro was Jewish, and Hungary, which was at the time allied with Nazi Germany, was becoming an increasingly hostile place for Jews. In April 1938, Hungary passed laws limiting Jews’ ability to work and banned the exportation of intellectual property.  So Biro, who claimed to have converted to Christianity, left the country, plans in hand, before the law went into effect. He and his brother made their way across Europe and the Atlantic, finally landing in Argentina, where Biro began manufacturing the pens commercially.  Sometimes, one big order can launch a company and Biro landed a peach of a client — the UK’s Royal Air Force. The USAF would order Biro’s pens as well. Fountain pens, which leaked at high altitudes and couldn’t write on a notepad held up against the wall, weren’t ideal for keeping flight logs, and so despite initial price, the RAF ordered 30,000.  


Biro didn’t profit as much as he could have from his invention.  He ended up selling the last of his shares in the company when he needed money to help the rest of his family flee to Argentina.  Though the patent of the ballpoint pen would probably be worth billions by now, Biro had no regrets about bartering to save lives.


All else being equal, inventors refusing to claim exclusive rights to his creation are rare.  An inventor having to testify in court that no one should be able to claim it is even rarer. Such as a man is Tim Berners-Lee.  Wait a minute, you say, wait a minute, I know that name. Yeah, he’s the guy who created the www. Berners-Lee earned about electronics from tinkering with a model railway as a child and received a first-class bachelor of arts degree in physics from Queens College, London in 1976.  While at university, Berners-Lee made a computer out of an old television set, which he bought from a repair shop. In the late 1980’s bit of technology that would grow into the internet that is today as ubiquitous as electricity. While working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory,  Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, an Internet-based hypermedia initiative for global information sharing, broad-stroke: combining existing technology to make it more than the sum of its parts. In 1989, CERN was the largest internet node in Europe, and Berners-Lee saw an opportunity to join hypertext with the internet:

I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and—ta-da!—the World Wide Web[33] … Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.


In February 2012, Berners-Lee had to show up in court for the first time in his life.  He was needed to testify in a patent trial in Texas. Berners-Lee was one of several web pioneers who came through the court during the course of a four-day trial, which ultimately convinced a jury to invalidate two patents owned by Eolas, one of the most fearsome “patent trolls” of all time.  For the benefit of those listeners who think trolls are just the things that live under bridges, waiting for some billy goats to come by, a patent troll is a person or company that uses patent infringement claims to win court judgments for profit or to stifle competition. Sometimes they legitimately hold the patent, but not in the case of Eolas, a company with no products on the market, started by a man named Michael Doyle.  Eolas’ lawyers claimed the invented “interactivity on the Web,” based solely on a program created by Michael Doyle back in 1993, that allowed doctors to view embryos online. Under Doyle’s conception of his own invention, practically any modern website owed him royalties. If you do something on a website or online game and something else happens, that infringed his on Doyle’s patents. Unlike many “patent trolls” who simply settle for settlements just under the cost of litigation, Doyle’s company had the chops, the lawyers, and the early filing date needed to extract tens of millions of dollars from companies like Microsoft and Apple.


In 1999, he filed a lawsuit saying that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer violated his patent on “interactive” features on the web.  It worked, the jury awarded Eolas $540 million. Appeals ensued but were inconclusive and, presumably to stem the bleeding, the case was settled for more than $100 million, with just over $30 million going to Eolas’ co-plaintiff, the University of California, where he worked when he filed his patent.  A patents that was denounced by the web’s global standard-setting body in 2003. The US Patent Office re-examined the patent, a rare occurrence indeed that came at the behest of Berners-Lee and his contemporaries, but no further action was taken and Eolas was off to the next lawsuit. 20 lawsuits. Against the likes of eBay, Adobe, Google, Yahoo, and Amazon. Court documents show the company was seeking more than $600 million in January 2012, a damage demand that had inflated to more than $1 billion by the time of trial.  Fortunately, this East Texas jury went found Eolas’ patents invalid. Eolas appealed (I’m shocked) and filed an infringement lawsuit against Facebook, Disney and Wal-Mart (still sarcastically shocked). Those lawsuits had asserted the two invalidated patents as well as two new ones, but the two newer patents both incorporate Eolas’ first patent. The appeal went about as well. Eolas mounted a lengthy appeal, but it was all for naught; a three-judge appeals panel affirmed the jury’s verdict without comment. Without the patent, all of their active lawsuits were dead in the water.


And that’s…Back to Roentgen.  A few months after the accidental discovery of x-rays, Roentgen published a paper about his discovery: “On a New Kind of Rays.”  He made a presentation before the Würzburg Medical Society and X-rayed the hand of a prominent anatomist, who proposed naming the new ray after Roentgen.  X-ray technology took off all over the world and Roentgen won the first Nobel prize in physics in 1901. Not a penny of any profits generated by the sales of use of x-ray machines went into Roentgen pocket.  He wanted x-rays to be available for the benefit mankind. That was his choice. As was leaving instructions for his lab notes to be burned after his death. Go figure. Remember…Thanks….


Power-up by Jeremy Blake

Walk Through The Park by TrackTribe