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The History (And Artistic De-Evolution) of Patent Drawings

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Phueng

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Diving Dress, 1810

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Since the United States Patent & Trade Office opened in 1790, it has required that every patent be accompanied by an illustration depicting the applicant's invention. But in the past 222 years, patent drawings have changed, degrading from detailed works of art to simplistic line drawings that barely qualify as illustrations.

Whereas patent drawings from the 1800s and even early- to mid-1900s featured artistic techniques like shading, multiple perspectives and texture, today’s patent drawings are often embarrassing doodles at best. We can blame both cultural changes and adjustments in patent application rules. For one, the patent office no longer requires that patent applicants hire an official draftsman to draw an invention. And in 2000, the PTO adjusted its rules to decrease how often applicants need to revise their drawings with corrections.

Specifically, the Patent Office decided that it would “focus on having a drawing that can communicate the invention to the examiner and on the scanability of the drawings so as to produce readable drawings in published applications and patents.” So, while a modern drawing does have to explain an invention, it doesn’t have to do so in an especially beautiful way.

But the decrease in illustration quality also reflects a cultural shift.

“There’s such a focus on cost-cutting in so many industries now -- pride of your work goes out the window for the benefit of reducing costs. There’s a lot of emphasis on, ‘Let’s save money on the drawings,’” Kevin Prince, author of The Art of the Patent and a registered patent agent, told Wired. “It’s probably just a cultural change. Back then, getting a patent was really like, ‘Wow.’ You wanted it to represent you and represent you very well. You had to be an artist to do the patent drawings back then, undoubtedly.”

Here’s a look at how patent drawings have changed in the more than two centuries since their inception. (Make sure to check out the last slides, to see just how bad patent drawings have become.)
For this diving dress, the patent illustrator not only drew the invention, but also went to great lengths to paint the wearer’s face and body in impressive detail. The drawing also shows how and where the diving dress would be used, with an excellent drawing of people rowing in a boat. Much of the patent drawing isn’t necessary to the invention, but it’s clear that the illustrator wanted to take the time and include fine details, literally creating a work of art.

Prior to 1836, the USPTO didn’t require two copies of patent drawings either, so illustrators could take more time on a single drawing.
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Artificial Arm, 1865


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Up until 1880, inventors had to include an actual model of their invention along with a drawing, so many of the drawings included in patent applications were actually depictions of the draftsman’s model. With so much time committed to creating a working model of the invention, it’s no wonder that patent draftsmen would want to spend a good amount of time making sure the drawing matched.

The artificial arm drawn in this patent illustration has depth, as a 3D model does, and goes into great detail in its cross-section. With all three perspectives of the arm, including the detailed drawing of the hand, the draftsman accomplished much more than what the USPTO required in a drawing.

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Flying Machine, 1869


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This drawing of a flying machine shows great detail in the man’s hair and even his arm muscles. The rear perspective of the man even shows the edge of his mustache and the slight appearance of eyebrow hair. How’s that for attention-to-detail?

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Hentz Bicycle, 1899


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Patents abandoned color around the late 1800s, but they didn’t abandon their detail. Even in something as minute as the figure labeling, you can see intricate calligraphy detailing. These small details could become de facto signatures for the patent illustrator.

“Interestingly, the patent draftsman is the only one not listed on the patent,” Prince says. “The patent draftsman is anonymous. I think that maybe some of them tried to make their own mark on it. And I really notice that in the figure labels. You’ll have really amazing intricate, cursive label for the figures. These days it’s Arial Bold. No one cares.”

Beyond the figure labels, the bike itself is a work of art. The illustrator has even taken the time to shade the ground beneath the wheels.

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Pig Muzzle, 1901


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Even something as simple as a pig muzzle gets more than 50 labels, each with its own hand-drawn letter. The artist takes the time to shade the pig’s snout and draw out its entire face. You could even say he has added a bit of emotion to the muzzled animal’s eyes and mouth.

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Gum Case, 1928


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This gum case is hardly one of the USPTO’s most innovative inventions, but even so, the drawing stands out. Everything from the handle at the top of the case to the base holding it up is drawn with intricate line shading. Darker shading shows the hard edges of case, leaving no doubt in a viewer’s mind where the gum fits, and how the stand is meant to be constructed.

This is clearly a design patent, which protects how something looks. Unlike utility patents, which protect how something works, design patents tend to be much more detailed, in order to ensure that nobody can steal an idea because of a poor drawing.

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Stapler, 1940


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As we reach the mid 1900’s, patent drawings still maintain a high level of quality. This patent for a stapler feed shows the device in multiple angles in order to best depict the invention. Line shading and even a bit of stippling -- the technique of shading with dots -- is used in the drawing.

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Accordion Mask, 1953


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The accordion mask here show how styles changed in the 1950s. The figure labels are no longer works of calligraphy, but still maintain a unique and artistic look. And even though the mask does not require a drawing of a wearer’s face, the draftsman makes the effort to actually show how the mask would look on a woman. Not only does this particular patent drawing show a simple invention, but it also speaks to the art of the time period. It’s a simple, cartoonish drawing that exudes that 50s housewife, idealistic suburban vibe.

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Safety Helmet, 1960


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While drawings from the 1900s greatly differ from those of the 1800s, you can see that detail still mattered to many of the draftsman. They worked very well within the limits of black ink on white paper. This drawing, in particular, uses stippling to make both the man wearing the helmet and the helmet itself come to life. It adds a realistic element to the patent -- so much so that you can even see the edge of the man’s ear in the side opening. Also, notice how the figure labeling still has artistic intent, but it contemporary to the early 60s aesthetic.

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Robot Amusement Ride, 1963


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Again, we can still see that patent illustrators took their jobs seriously even up to the early 1960s. Each of the robot carriers on this amusement ride has line shading and specific details to show exactly how the inventor intended the carriers to look. The children in the ride have actual expressions on their faces -- albeit, not as detailed as those in previous patents -- and there’s texture to their hair.

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Apple-Logo Telephone, 1985


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As the 20th Century draws to a close, patent illustrations begin to focus on specific areas of detail. There are no numbers on the keypad of this telephone, but the artist has at least taken the time to add a nice, subtle stippling to create more depth to the gadget. The figure labels still have character as well, as many of the drawings in the 1980s were still done carefully by hand.

Apple was not the assignee on this patent.

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PC Peripheral Doll, 1998


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Once the 90s approach, the degradation in patent drawings is much more evident. With the advent of graphic design programs, it became possible to create quick drawings on a computer, saving both time and money. In that vein, the patent illustrator opts for the quickest route, rather than the most artistic. Neither the computer nor the doll have any depth in this drawing, and the numerals are computer-generated as well. But hey, at least there’s a floppy disk opening in the PC.

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Interactive Toy Dog, 2003


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This interactive toy dog is nothing compared to the drawings of the 1800s and early 1900s. It is, however, better than the PC doll of the late 90s. The drawing is incredibly cartoonish, but at least uses some line shading on the dog itself and lines around the dog to indicate the spinning motion that occurs when you clap your hands. The reference numerals also match the silly character as the dog. We might consider this illustration a decently drawn anomaly in a field of artistic waste.

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Gestures for Touch Sensitive Input Devices, 2006


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For a company that could actually afford beautiful patent drawings, Apple is a huge disappointment. The company has revenues in the tens of billions, yet its patent drawings are notoriously bad. In this drawing for gestures used in touch-capable devices, like the iPad, it’s as if the illustrator had never seen a pair of hands. They’re disproportionate, and there’s no distinction between the palm and wrist. Plus, the fingers look strangely alien as they rest on the tablet in a totally unnatural position.

The tablet itself also lacks any depth, and the illustrator didn’t even bother to include letters and numbers on the touch keyboard. At least the drawing does have minimal line shading to show its glass surface. Still, those hands are so grotesque and contorted, it’s hard to fathom why Apple didn’t just hire a professional artist to handle this patent drawing.

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Electronic Slot Machine, 2007


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When the patent office relaxed its drawing rules, inventors began focusing much more on the claims of the patent application, rather than the drawing. And it shows. What could have been an excellent rendering of a slot machine has been reduced to a mish-mash of rectangles and squares. The slot machine’s screen that shows falling watermelons is mediocre at best -- the watermelon’s stripes aren’t confined to the edges of the fruit, and when the melon is smashed, it looks more like a baking cookie than anything else.

“The name of the game is the claims,” a USPTO spokesperson told Wired. “Although the drawings are part of the patent, there is more focus on the claims. In that context, the drawings are often seen as a second-class citizen of importance when drafting a patent application.”

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Dance Ring Video Game, 2011


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Disney’s patent drawing for a dance ring video game is hilariously bad. Less than 50 years prior, patent illustrators took a great deal of time detailing a person’s face. But with this, it’s almost impossible to tell what the drawing is trying to depict without reading the patent language. Could it be an anxious man stuck inside a human-sized hamster ball? Or a giant doll that throws strange fireballs around a room?

In this case, you do have to read the patent to understand what’s going on. The man in the middle actually has game controllers in his hands (though they aren’t visible in the drawing) and he is moving them based on what's depicted on the screen of the video game. He is dancing based on where the video game cues him to go around an imaginary ring.

Who knew?

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Domestic Animal Telephone, 2011


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The smiling face, the shapes strewn across the body, and the limited arm and leg hair make for a frightening drawing. This is the toy of nightmares. In reality, however, the patent drawing is meant to depict a telephone made for animals. Yet in its current state, it’s hard to imagine that an animal would even come close to this strange contraption.

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Google Glass Anti-Theft Mechanism, 2012


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Like Apple, Google could use some help in the patent drawing department. The search giant isn’t exactly the strongest company in terms of design, but resorting to a simplistic oval to represent a person’s head is downright lazy. Compared to the gorgeous faces of the 1800s and even the black and white faces of the mid-1900s, these Google Glass wearers look like a couple of Mr. Potato Heads. The eyes and ears aren’t much better, but I guess we should be grateful they were even included.

Let’s just hope that people don’t look back at patents of the 2000s as any indication of our culture’s artistic leanings.

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