On August 16, 2011 the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued patent number 8,000,000 to Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. but even though it was number 8,000,000 it wasn’t really the 8 millionth patent.
The first United States patent was issued, signed by George Washington himself, in 1790 to Samuel Hopkins for his invention of potash. But based on the current patent numbering system, US Patent No. 1 was granted to John Ruggles in 1836 for a type of train wheel.
So why there is a discrepancy between the first patent issued and patent number one?
This question is answered in an article written by my deceased friend and co-author of the book Patent Fundamentals for Scientists and Engineers. This article was originally posted by the United States Patent and Trademark office 1997 and therefore is part of the public domain. I thought it might be interesting to the reader’s of PatentHome so I re-posted it here:
Has Logic Been Used in Patent Numbering?
By, Thomas T. Gordon, Esq.
X patents are the patents that issued between the start of the patent system in 1790 and a major revision of the patent laws in 1836. Those patents were not numbered at their issuance, but have been assigned a number indicating their order, with a letter X before each number.
In 1836, the patent laws were amended to make several basic changes in the system. The registration of applications was abolished and a system of examination was ordered, and the office was required to keep a record of all patents issued. This recording system established the use of numbers and the issuance of Patent Number 1 on June 13, 1836.
Within about 7 months after the issuance of Patent 1, the first anomaly occurred, the issuance of a patent on a Knitting Machine to John McMullen and Joseph Hollen, Jr., with the number 126 ½. Patents 126 and 127 exist. Why did this patent get this odd number? Was there a logical reason?
A more drastic change in the numbering sequence occurred in 1861. In that year, a new numbering sequence was started using the number I again, and continuing onward. Later in 1861, this system was stopped, and the office returned to the numbering system established in 1836. They were forced to renumber all of the patents that had been issued in early 1861.
If one looks at these patents, you will see that the “new number” is listed first, and the number of the 1836 series is listed below. The MPEP (Manual of Patent Examining Procedure) for many editions carried a table for correcting these anomalous numbers. The1861 system of numbering also applied to the design and reissued patents. What was the reason for changing of the numbering system in 1861? It is not known, but logic prevailed and the old system was re established.
The use of fractions in the numeric system has reared its ugly head many times. Those patents have been termed the “fractional patent series.” I was first introduced to this anomaly some years ago when I was actively prosecuting applications. I received an Office Action rejecting my invention based on U.S. Patent 2,712,152 ½.
When I first read the cited rejection, I assumed that the ½ was a typo. Upon looking at the enclosed patents I found the patent, and learned it was not a typo. Upon questioning the examiner, he said,
“It is a real patent. If you do not believe it, go to the microfilm files and look there!”
I discussed this numbering with examiners as well as other practitioners. Very, very few knew about them I learned from a technical man of the PTO search room staff (now retired) that he had a list of some 30 fractional numbered patents, but was not complete. He showed me a card file which listed fractional patents, and I was amazed to learn that there existed patents with numbers using halves, quarters, eighths, and even a twelfth. Why was this done? No one I questioned knew any real answer.
One of the most logical answers I received was that a patent had been awarded to a man in his 70s who was quite ill and wanted to see the patent before he died. Could the Office issue the patent quickly? Perhaps this was the reason for some of the fractional numbers, but when I found 126 ½ and found it issued to joint inventors, that logic went somewhat out the window.
I assembled a list and a file of about 40 fractional patents. It should be noted that all of the fractional patents I located were on the microfilm in the Public Search Room.
The fractional patents raise questions other than their oddities in numbering. They are prior art, but they cannot be accessed in our computer systems. The systems allow only 7 or 8 spaces for the numbers to be entered, and how does one enter the fraction, when no fractional keys exist on the computer keyboard, or spates to enter’ 1/2? There have been statements from our “experts” that all patents are in the data base, but how do we locate the fractional patents? If they cannot be located, than a computer prior art search may not be complete and true.
Widen the archive copies of the patents were brought to the PTO some yews ago from their storage caves in Pennsylvania for digital scanning, I was told that the operators were quite surprised at the number of fractional patents they found. They did not specifically make a listing of them, as they had no reason to do so.
Let us hope that logic will prevail in the numbering system, and no more fractions, or decision to re¬number, are tried again without consideration of the problems created. Also, let us hope that the computer networks can be modified to access the fractional patents, and help establish a data base of all numbered U.S. patents.