Scientific American, v 28 (ns) no 28 p 224-5, 12 April 1873
Nebraska Patent Laws
A correspondent states that the Nebraska legislature has passed one of those wretched local laws in regard to the sale [of] patents which disfigure the statutes of several other States, and are without force, legal or moral. This Nebraska law enacts, first, that it shall be unlawful for any person to sell or barter, or offer to sell or barter, any patent right, in any part of that State, without complying with such law. Next, the seller of the patent is required to submit a sworn copy of the patent to the Probate Judge of the county, give his name, age, residence, occupation, and go through with such other humiliating examinations as the judge may take a fancy to order; and then, if the judge thinks it a proper case, he may grant a certificate showing that the applicant is duly authorized to sell his patent within the limits of Nebraska. The seller is then required to exhibit the certificate to everybody he meets on the street, if they ask for it. Next, in case the seller bargains with a man for his patent and agrees to take a note in part payment, he must write or print thereon, in prominent letters, the words "given for a patent right;" and the value of the note is to be impaired by being made subject, if transferred to a third party, to all the defenses that might exist if owned by the original receiver. Finally, if the patentee or seller of a patent shall fail to observe any one of these requirements, he is to be deemed a criminal, and on conviction is to be fined five hundred dollars, or imprisoned six months, or both, at the discretion of the court; and is also to be liable for damages in a civil action. We pity the stupidity of the legislators who could enact such a law. It is in direct contravention of the laws of the United States, which declare that the patentee, his heirs and assigns, shall possess the exclusive right to make, use and vend the patented invention throughout the United States and the Territories thereof. But Nebraska, it appears, undertakes to legislate the inventor out of these rights, and take possession of them itself, without so much as offering compensation.
We need hardly say that this law of Nebraska, and similar laws in other States, are all of them unconstitutional, and have been so declared by the United States Courts. We published the decision to this effect some time ago.
Any judge or other person in Nebraska who undertakes to interfere with a patentee in the sale of his patent, under the pretended authority of a Nebraska law, makes himself personally liable to penalties under the laws of the United States.
If the object of the Nebraska legislators is to save its simple minded citizens from the cheats and tricks of designing knaves, who, under cover of pretended patents, pretended mines, and fraudulent pretenses of various kinds, go roaming about the country plundering whomsoever they can: if such is the object, surely there must be some other way to its accomplishment than interference with the vested rights granted to individuals by the laws of the United States.
A much better plan would be the passage of a law by the legislature authorizing the Governor of Nebraska to purchase from the patentee, on behalf of the State, the right to every new and useful patented invention that might be presented, all citizens of the State to enjoy the free right of use thereof. This would relieve the citizens of all necessity of buying patent rights, the United States laws would be complied with, the useful arts would be splendidly encouraged, and Nebraska soon become the most intelligent, wealthy, populous and prosperous State in the Union.
If any one should undertake to write a volume on the subject of inventors -- "their vagaries and vicissitudes" would be a "taking" title, as publishers express it -- we believe that a tome as ponderous as Webster's dictionary might be produced and yet not exhaust the topic. As a class, they are looked upon as enthusiasts, fanatics, seekers after will-of-the-wisp theories, until some of day the public wakes up to the fact that one out of the million has immortalized himself and conferred incalculable benefits on the human race. Then, if it cannot crush him or deprive him of the result of his labors, it bows down to him, pours gold into his pocket, erects statues to his memory, and complacently absorbs his glory under the grand title of our "national genius." Meanwhile, the other nine hundred and odd thousand continue to be "visionary monomaniacs."
The popular notion of an inventor is admirably depicted in a comedy, written by a well known literary lady and recently produced at one of the theaters in this city. The principal character is a childish old man who has invented a flying machine, in his attempts to perfect which he has swamped a fortune. The action hinges on the efforts of his daughter to save him from further waste and to protect the family homestead, which, it seems, her father mortgages to obtain money to pursue his scheme. Though the play has not been successful, to this one character we can award hearty praise. The utter indifference to every subject save his invention, the desire to sacrifice everything, even the roof over his head, for the "benefit of mankind," the earnest catching at every word of encouragement, the delight of the old man when the wily lawyer who is plotting against him promises assistance, and his total despair when he finds his means all gone and himself unable to put "the very last and finishing touch" to his device, were most graphically depicted, and old friend was on the stage before us, repeating familiar words.
Fortunately, the eccentricity of genius is the exception and not the rule, while it is the prominence which individuals unwittingly give to themselves that leads them to be regarded as types of a class. We constantly hear of schemes as impracticable and wild as the search for the philosopher's stone or the elixir of life. The quest of perpetual motion is indeed our modern alchemy. Often we learn of instances of labor so patient, and confidence so implicit in future triumph, that the very pathos of the case disarms condemnation. There is an old man who haunts the halls of Congress in Washington; he has done so for years, with a faith which is wonderful, if not sublime. He is over seventy years of age, always neatly dressed, though there is a tinge of mild decay now coming over his raiment, and generally he wanders about with a bundle of pamphlets under his arm. He is ready to explain his theory to any one, and advances his views in the mildest and most deferential of terms until some person ventures to doubt their practicability, when a tigress robbed of her whelps could not be more incensed. His invention is something about applying cement to the banks and bottoms of canals, so that the earth cannot be washed away, while the cutting may at the same time be easily kept clean. The old man believes most implicitly that some day the government will adopt his system and, by some mysterious process in the committee rooms, an appropriation will be awarded him. Session after session passes and still he waits, nothing wearies him, and rebuffs are of no avail. Recently he has been villainously swindled by two men said to be high in political position, who have taken his money and promised to assist him; but they have done nothing except put him off with lying excuses, and Congress meets and adjourns without knowing the existence of either the inventor or his ideas. Thus will he continue, pouring his scanty means into the hands of these harpies, and coming from his home in Ohio to Washington every winter until death overtakes him, as far at the end as at the beginning from the realization of his wild fantasy. There is a humorous as well as a grave side to the subject; perhaps the majority of cases would excite laughter before pity. A metaphysical genius with unkempt auburn locks and dilapidated garments infests newspaper offices and the Liberal Club of this city. He is ready at all times to argue anything, but has a particular fondness for metaphysics and squaring the circle. For accomplishing the later, he has invented a new process, which consists in considering the difference between the circumference and the circumscribed polygon as an infinitesimal quality too small to be noticed. It is needless to state that by this method he arrives at, to him, perfectly satisfactory results.
Another instance is that of a recent exile from Erin, who, for some time past, has been seeking to secure the adoption of his invention by Congress. It was suggested at one time to fire cannon at different villages throughout the country to warn farmers of the approach of a storm. This idea our Irishman had improved upon, and he claimed that his signal could be heard around a radius of twenty-five miles from his machine. The device was economical, simple, supplied a want long felt, etc., etc., the usual formula. He worried the Committee of the House on commerce to procure him an appropriation -- a hundred thousand dollars or so -- but persistently refused to tell what his invention was. He "didn't propose to let his secret out and be robbed, but wanted the appropriation first." Finally he consented to allow the Light House Board to investigate the matter.
It was discovered that the device consisted in a huge funnel with the little part down and the big part up. The little part was to be fitted with a whistling apparatus and arranged upon a framework at some distance from the ground. When the telegraph should bring intelligence of a coming storm, an immense plug, hanging above the funnel, was to be loosened, when it would descend with great rapidity -- pile driver fashion -- into the funnel, forcing the air into and through the lower small part of the machine and thus produce a sound of stupendous volume which would be audible for twenty-five miles. The Board heartlessly reported against the invention, and the inventor was last head of endeavoring to convince the public that the examiners had been bribed by an envious rival.