Homework 1/28 (John Gallagher)

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  • The patent I choose, number 4304169, was for a method of noise reduction in a Maypole type braiding machine, the invention of Francis S. Cimprich et al. This improvement of the braiding machine was found to be worthy of a patent in 1981 when the patent was granted, but it may not have been at various other points in U.S. history, due to the changing standards for patentability. We will consider here whether this invention would be considered patentable under the different standards in the cases Hotchkiss v. Greenwood, A. & P. Tea Co. v. Supermarket Corp., and Lyon v. Bausch & Lomb.
  • Certainly the idea of this type of braiding machine was not new at the time of Cimprich's patent. The machine employs spools of wires or fibers which are wrapped around a thin core in order to produce rope, candle wicks, or in this case, hose. The spools move in a circle around the hose, wrapping the wires or fibers in criss-crossed pattern. This criss-cross is achieved by weaving the spools in and out from each other as they move around the hose. This motion is guided by two interwoven sinusoidal paths cut in the supporting rings. The spools move along these paths and the fibers are interwoven, much in the same way ribbons are wrapped around a Maypole. This idea had existed at least since 1934, since it was patented in patent number 1,983,222[1].
  • This idea had certainly existed before, but the Maypole braiding machines had always been very loud, putting the operators in danger of damaging their hearing. Cimprich patented the idea of dampening the noise causing vibrations by placing a layer of visco-elastic material between the two plate which made up the ring, called the 'deck' guiding the spools. The motion of the spools in the paths on the deck is the main source of noise, so placing some viscoelastic material between the plates of the deck would absorb some of the noise-causing vibrations. This was not the first attempt to reduce the noise produced by the braiding machine. In 1975 Max Ostermann filled for a patent in Germany for a method of noise reduction in braiding machines. His invention focused on the shape of the guides for the spools, but the patent also claims "the invention provides for the provision of a zone or portion of noise dampening material, particularly synthetic plastic material at the marginal portion of a respective sector of the plate, or where the contact point is located." The plate referred to here is not the deck, but a Geneva gear which transfers the motion of the spool. The contact point is between the spool and the gear. Thus some time prior to Cimprich's improvement, Ostermann had already come up with the idea of reducing the noise using a material which would absorb vibrations. Ostermann had the idea to apply this method to the gears and the spool itself. Cimprich later applied the idea to the deck, to which the gears and spools were attached.
  • In Hotchkiss v. Greenwood, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the innovation of making clay doorknobs instead of metal or wooden ones was not patentable. They claimed that the improvement of device by substituting one material for another could not be patented, if the improvement derived only from the a more suitable material. The idea of using a better material does not contain the ingenuity characteristic of an invention, the court said. They proposed the following criteria for determining whether an idea is patentable: if it is the work of a skilled mechanic, then the idea is not patentable. If this standard were applied to the case of the noise-reduction techniques in Maypole braiders, Cimprich's innovation would not be patentable. Cimprich took the existing idea of using some plastic material as a dampener, and applied it to a different part of the machine. Presumably, a skilled mechanic, seeing how vibration were dampened in one part of a machine, could apply that method to a nearby component on the machine, and thus reduce the vibration, and thus the noise, even further. Since this does not require an inventor, but only a skilled mechanic, this innovation would not be patentable.
  • A century later, in 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case A. & P. Tea Co. v. Supermarket Corp. that a patent for a particular cashier's counter was not valid, because it was made up of elements which were all previously known and used. The court decided that a combination of known elements must have produce some 'unusual or surprising consequences' if it is to be patentable. They decided this in order to be consistent with the function of the patent, established by the Constitution, which is to add to the sum of useful knowledge. In the case of the braiders, again Cimprich's innovation would again be unpatentable. He took an existing method for noise reduction, and applied it to a different part of the machine. From his patent we can gather that the result of this is just what we might expect, the reduction of noise in that part of the machine. Since the use of existing ideas does not produce any unpredictable result, the innovation, while useful, is not the subject for a patent.
  • By 1955, a new code pertaining to patent law had been passed by Congress, which included 'non-obviousness' a criterion necessary for patentability. In the case Lyon v. Bausch & Lomb, the U.S. Court of Appeals Second Circuit decided that a particular method of attaching a reflective coating to glass using heat was patentable, despite the fact that others had come up with the idea for this method previously, and had even experimented with the method. The others had not been able to make the method effective, and so had abandoned their attempts. Lyon then managed to use the method, and subsequently patented it. The court judged that the previous attempts did not 'anticipate' Lyon's innovation, because they had abandoned the idea that the method could be effective. Lyon's was entitled to the patent, because their innovation clearly was not obvious, since others had tried and failed to use that method. Under this standard, Cimprich's invention would be patentable. People had desired to reduce the excessive noise of braiding machines for a long time, and no one had done so satisfactorily. Although Cimprich's innovation may seem simple, no one had thought to or been able to construct a deck which included visco-elastic material to reduce vibrations, despite the fact that people had been searching for methods to reduce noise (demonstrated by Ostermann's patent). Thus Cimprich's idea should be considered non-obvious and thus the subject for a patent.
  • Cimprich's patent for reducing noise in braiding machines is valid today, but would not have been prior to the change is in patent law made by Congress in 1952. The standards used in Hotchkiss v. Greenwood and in A. & P. Tea Co. v. Supermarket Corp., if applied to this patent, would have found it invalid.