US v. Adams (JWB)

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The Case

  • Companion case to Graham v. John Deere (1966)
  • US (petitioner) seeks review of a judgment in the Court of Claims, holding valid and infringed a patent on a wet battery issued to Adams (respondent)
  • Adams originally asserted that the US infringed on his patent and breached an implied contract to pay compensation for use of his invention
  • Trial Commissioner held patent was valid and infringed in part, but that no contract had been established
  • Respondent tried to assert that certiorari petition came too late (90-days came from initial judgment rather than the date of the decision on the contract issue), but the Court did not agree
  • The patent under consideration, U.S. No. 2,322,210, was issued in 1943 upon an application filed in December 1941 by Adams. It relates to a nonrechargeable, as opposed to a storage, electrical battery.
    • object is to provide constant voltage and current without use of acids/generation of dangerous fumes
  • Less than a month after filing for his patent, Adams brought his discovery to the attention of the Army and Navy
  • National Bureau of Standards recommended, 'Until the inventor can present more convincing data about the performance of his (battery) cell, I see no reason to consider it further.'
  • Height of WWII, Government changed its mind (unbeknownst to Adams) and Signal Corps concluded it was feasible
  • 1955 – upon examination of a battery produced for the Government by the Burgess Company, Adams first learned of the Government’s actions – requested compensation and was denied in 1960
  • US challenged novelty and nonobviousness of Adams’ patent
    • The Government concludes that wet batteries comprising a zinc anode and silver chloride cathode are old in the art; and that the prior art shows that magnesium may be substituted for zinc and cuprous chloride for silver chloride. Hence, it argues that the 'combination of magnesium and cuprous chloride in the Adams battery was not patentable because it represented either no change or an insignificant change as compared the prior battery designs.'
  • Court ruled:
    • the fact that the Adams battery is water-activated sets his device apart from the prior art.
    • If the use of magnesium for zinc and cuprous chloride for silver chloride were merely equivalent substitutions, it would follow that the resulting device—Adams'—would have equivalent operating characteristics. But it does not. It has ‘certain valuable operating advantages over other batteries’

Despite the fact that each of the elements of the Adams battery was well known in the prior art, to combine them as did Adams required that a person reasonably skilled in the prior art must ignore that (1) batteries which continued to operate on an open circuit and which heated in normal use were not practical; and (2) water-activated batteries were successful only when combined with electrolytes detrimental to the use of magnesium.