Five Famous Patents


Have you created the next world-changing technology? If so, then you should definitely get some advice on protecting the intellectual property behind it. While some larger companies are trending to more open innovation models (such as GE, Samsung and Tesla), most can’t afford to just give their inventions away to competitors and need the exclusivity to make money. Here are some examples of world-famous technologies and the patents behind them. It’s likely that the owners of these patents didn’t regret protecting their intellectual property for these inventions!


1) The 3D Printer

The inventor and patent-holder of the first stereolithography (SLA) rapid prototyping system is documented to Chuck Hull of 3D Systems in the USA.

3D Systems is a closed-source company, using in-house technologies for product development and patents to protect these technologies from competitors.

Critics of the closed-innovation model have blamed seemingly slow development and innovation in 3D printing not on a lack of technology, but on a lack of open information sharing within the industry. Should the person who comes up with an idea be able to do what they want with it? Does the right to patents generally inspire and motivate higher-quality innovations leading to a better and more impressive final product? These are some of the questions that come up frequently in the fight of open vs closed innovation. On the other hand, where would 3D printing be today if 3D Systems championed the open innovation model?

Indeed, 3D Systems follow a closed-innovation model to the extent that in November 2012, 3D Systems filed a lawsuit against prosumer 3D printer company Formlabs and the Kickstarter crowdfunding website over Formlabs attempt to fund a printer which it claimed infringed one of its patents. The legal procedure lasted more than two years and even ended with a Netflix documentary about 3D printing called “Print the Legend”.

Chuck Hull’s first 3D printing patent was issued in 1986 and was ahead of its time. The document outlines the basic technology used by most common 3D printers: stereolithography, or light-solidification of resin. A moving platform takes inputs from a computer and positions the base under a nozzle. Liquid resin from the nozzle forms the object, layer by layer, which is solidified by UV light.

As computing technology advanced, 3D printing started showing its true value. With metal-printing methods such as laser metal sintering, manufacturers are now 3D printing ambitious constructions such as bridges and rocket engines, and even biomaterials for medical applications.


2) GPS

How many of us know how GPS works? This was one of the questions I was asked as a fresh mechanical engineering graduate interviewing for my first patent trainee position.

We use it all the time in our phones, watches, and cars. Allegedly, some companies and governments are even using when you don’t want them to!

GPS satellites were invented by the US Navy, and they are operated today by the US Space Force. Roger Easton was the architect behind the Global Positioning System, developing the technologies in the 1950s for the Naval Research Laboratory to track US satellites in orbit – and the Soviet satellites too.

Later, Easton turned his technology around, tracking objects on the ground from space. This 1974 patent (US 3789409) awarded to him describes methods to enable navigation with satellites. High precision clocks launched into space refined the technology and corrected for errors caused by special relativity.

The technology remained within the US military for years, and the United States used GPS satellites to navigate the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq during the first Gulf War, sometimes called “the first space war.” Of course, other countries started developing their own systems such as GLONASS (Russian), BeiDou (Chinese) and Galileo (EU), and nowadays, we can use a combination of each.

GPS became fully operational with 24 satellites in 1995, and today, Google Maps is virtually never out of reach.

For those who want the answer to how it works – as you know, floating in orbit around the Earth are a load of satellites. Their orbit means they are in a known position over the Earth. All the satellites keep the same time – they each have synchronised atomic clocks on board. When you turn on your GPS on your phone, your phone receives time signals from these orbiting satellites and compares them to its own time. The difference in time it takes to receive these signals is used by your phone to calculate your position. Effectively, GPS satellites don’t ‘beam’ your coordinates to your device, they just tell you the time.

If you have 3 satellites, you can get position and elevation. But usually, because the clock on your phone receiver is not very accurate, to make the positioning calculations work you need to account for this inaccuracy, and this can be done by having a fourth satellite signal continuously updating your phone receiver clock. Obviously, so that 4 are available to everyone around the world at one time, around 25 to 30 are needed in a GPS ‘constellation’.

Interestingly, because satellites orbit the Earth they experience less gravity than the clocks on earth, so relativity (good old Einstein) becomes an issue, so satellite clocks are updated from earth daily. Effectively, the satellites experience time at a faster rate than us on Earth so they need daily updating, otherwise they drift away from Earth-time and their signals become useless in determining position.


3) Quadcopter Drone

 Quadcopter drones are great. They are easily manoeuvrable and fairly safe (compared to helicopters!) as the blades can be enclosed. They are also great for filming wide shots, delivering parcels, or even picking up small passenger vehicles (just Google ‘drone taxi’).

 The quadcopter drone found today buzzing over parks (and airfields!), was first patented back in 1962 – US patent number 3053480. Edward Vanderlip, an engineer for Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, first designed a way to allow a helicopter to continue functioning in the event of a power failure.

Vanderlip then had the idea to incorporate pilot-friendly flight systems into a small, remotely operated rotary aircraft. His patent outlines an unmanned aerial vehicle designed to be “extremely simple” to fly. The drone design has “four lift rotors arranged in pairs at opposite ends” so that the vertical axis of tilt is always perpendicular to the ground. This allows the aircraft to tilt its rotors and fly in any direction while maintaining a level platform.

As soon as flight controls and other electronic systems, such as accelerometers, cameras and GPS navigation, caught up with Vanderlip’s idea (around 2005 to 2010), the quadcopter drone took to the skies in swarms.


4) 3G

The first generation of wireless mobile telecommunications technology made analog mobile phones possible. The second supported digital mobile phones. But it was 3G that transformed the device we now carry with us every day.

US6618592 was filed by Ericsson in 2000 titled “Mobile internet access”, which has since set in motion the filing of thousands of subsequent patent applications in the same area. 3G technology was the first to connect mobile phones to GPS and the internet creating the era of the smartphone. It made video calling and online streaming possible on a handheld device. The improvements to the network made with 4G infrastructure a decade later continued to transform your mobile phone, turning it into a wallet, personal assistant, and entertainment device. Who knows what 5G will be doing in the next 10 years, particulary in the development of the Internet of Things. One thing I can say is that it is unlikely 5G can suppress the immune system, or transmit a virus.


5) IPhone

I’ve included this one last as it can’t really be left off a list of famous patents, although in most countries it wouldn’t really be considered a patent, rather a registered design. Where in the US, patents cover Utility Patents and Design Patents, respectively, in the UK and Europe, we have separate patents and registered designs. But this is an American design, so we’ll call it a patent for now.

Apple’s design patent for the original iPhone (USD672769), listed simply as an “electronic device”, protects the ornamental design of the original iPhone.

Although the iPhone was not the first smartphone or the first phone to connect to the internet, its basic design has wooed many with its sleekness and simplicity and was even initially dubbed as the “Jesus Phone”.