Invention, like most creative activities, produces an abundance of records, in a variety of formats. The good news for archivists is that, due to the inventor's self interest in proving his or her case for originality, the need to concisely explain the invention to others, and the requirements of the U.S.
patent system, these records are extraordinarily clear and detailed. In this presentation, I would like to go through the stages of the inventive process and, at each, describe the kinds of records likely to exist and where one might find them. The paper is based on my experience working with a wide range of inventor's papers and corporate records at Hagley Museum and Library and at the Archives Center of the Smithsonian's American History Museum — and especially as the result of the initiatives jointly undertaken by the Archives Center and the Museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The bulk of the paper refers primarily to inventors working independently; corporate inventors are discussed at the end.
The inventive process begins with the inventor and so should the documentation process. Before embarking on the study of an invention, archivists should first thoroughly familiarize themselves with all aspects of the inventor's life, from their student days through their professional career. This means acquiring standard biographical facts, such as family background, personal history, educational history, employment history, honors and awards received, and professional affiliations. In addition, the archivist will want to examine the inventor's innovative track record — how many patents they held, in what areas and for what inventions; whether they successfully developed and marketed other inventions besides the one under study; whether they worked alone or with a co-inventor; and whether they worked independently or in a corporate setting. Such information should be available in published articles or books, "who's who" type listings, obituaries, etc. If not answerable at the outset, the archivist should keep these questions in mind during the documentation process. This kind of background information will provide crucial insight into the inventor's work and will help determine which records are to be acquired.
While not everyone's invention begins with the dramatic cry of "Eureka," every invention does begin with a basic idea. Ideas are tricky to pin down, however. They must be written down, verbally conveyed to someone else or otherwise recorded, in order to prove their existence. If they have not been, one has to trust to both the memory and the veracity of the inventor that the idea occurred when he or she said it did. Information about the first conceptualization of the idea can be obtained after the fact by conducting oral history interviews with the inventor or reading their published interviews, memoirs and other autobiographical statements. In addition, the inventor's friends and family can be interviewed to discover what they know about the origin of the idea.
However, such after-the-fact evidence is hardly sufficient and archivists will usually be looking for the first physical proof of the idea that led to the invention. This might take the form of a consciously kept record of ideas, labeled as such by the inventor — an "invention sketch book" or "utility sketchbook" or "record of inventions." This is a purposefully created record of initial thoughts about an invention, its design and potential. It might take the form of a pocket notebook, carried constantly on one's person and readily available when inspiration strikes. It might be a notebook kept by the bedside, ready to record nocturnal brainstorms. It might consist of hand-written or typed pages bound together at some later point in time. Invention notebooks usually are filled with ideas for many different inventions, whose range and variety provide valuable insight into the inventor's mind. The invention notebook may contain only a superficial glimpse of each idea, or each may be described in extensive detail with accompanying sketches and diagrams. Generally, an invention notebook is the place where the inventor records his or her ideas in rough format; it differs significantly from lab notebooks or experiment logbooks whose function is to document the efforts that went into the invention's development.
If the inventor is not this methodical in recording his or her ideas, one must search for the first evidence of the invention elsewhere. The obvious place to look, of course, is in the inventor's own writings, such as diaries, notes, memoranda, and personal and business correspondence. In addition, the archivist should imaginatively seek out other clues, since important evidence may be found in unlikely places: jotted down on scraps of paper of all shapes and sizes; written on desk calendars or in pocket diaries; scribbled in the margins of books; hidden among classroom notes; recorded on audiotapes; or pictured in photographs, home movies and videotapes. An inventor's earliest research activities may be traced through financial records for the purchase of chemicals, equipment and other supplies. Receipts, bills, correspondence with manufacturers, trade catalogs, special accounts for research expenditures, and household account books all can provide evidence of an inventor's first interest in and work on a particular invention.
Additional clues can be found in the writings of the inventor's family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Their diaries or letters may contain descriptions of conversations with, visits to, or letters received from the inventor, in which the invention is described in detail or just mentioned in passing. For instance, the inventor's friend might write a letter to his sister, in which he says, "I talked to Charlie today about his plans for the widget— it sounded very exciting." This might be the first recorded reference to the widget, months or even years before Charlie himself writes it up. Thus, it is important to identify the inventor's circle of friends and family and to examine their papers for possible evidence about the invention under study.
Placing the inventor within the context of his or her times and environment can also provide leads for the early documentation of an invention. Experiments or questionable activities might have provided exciting news in a small community, forming the basis for gossip which was recorded in the townspeople's diaries and letters. The same activities may have been written up in the newspaper or featured on the local TV news. If the inventor's activities were considered illegal or caused the neighbors to complain, evidence of them may be found among local police files. If his or her activities or theories were considered immoral, they may have been denounced from the pulpit and in published sermons, or have formed the text for fiery letters to the bishop, in which case evidence may be found among local and national church records.
Fortunately, one usually does not have to go to such extraordinary lengths to document the roots of an invention. Inventors are well aware of the need to establish the origins of their ideas, in order to establish priority for the patenting process. Priority "answers the question of who was the first to invent and thus entitled to the patent award."(1) Disputes over priority are settled by determining who conceived of an idea first, or who first filed a patent or who first reduced the idea to practice. Documentary evidence is crucial to settling such questions and the inventor knows that he or she needs to document the idea as soon as possible after conceiving it. He or she will prepare detailed descriptions that outline the uniqueness of the invention, the processes involved, its method of manufacture, its sales potential, and so on. Such documents often exist as formal statements or memoranda, carefully prepared notebook entries, lengthy letters, or written reports. These are often accompanied by more fully developed drawings, diagrams and schematics. Frequently these documents are notarized or have a testimonial attached; they are almost invariably signed by witnesses — but hopefully not by relatives, investors, or others with a financial interest in the invention. These carefully prepared documents may have several purposes. They may be intended to serve as evidence in legal disputes, or to lay the basis for the patent application, or to serve as a prospectus for gathering financial backing. Such documents may therefore be found among the inventor's personal legal records, in the files of his or her family attorney or patent attorney, in court records, or in the personal papers of wealthy local businessmen or bankers from whom the inventor had hoped to raise money.
Before putting a lot of work into developing an idea, the inventor will conduct a patent search, both to make sure it is not already patented and to check the state of the art in the field. He or she can conduct the search themselves or have their patent attorney or a commercial patent search service do it. As a result, the inventor's files will often contain numerous copies of other peoples' patents. These are important because they allow for comparison between the invention under study and existing devices and to illuminate the most recent developments in the field. They may also explain why an invention goes no further in development. In addition, the inventor may solicit information from manufacturers, trade groups, business associations, and the government, about the competition — the product which the inventor hopes to supplant with his or her own invention. Trade literature, sales statistics and consumer purchasing data place the invention within the context of the market for which it is intended. The presence of such information in the files also provides insight into the inventor's ambitions and hopes for commercial success.
Many different types of records are created during the course of developing the invention. The archivist should identify and preserve those records that explain the methodology and procedures used in the inventor's research as well as the results of that research. The archivist should also seek out and preserve those records that provide insight into major decisions or critical changes in the direction of the research. Laboratory notebooks and research logbooks document the daily work, the results obtained, and indicate progress. Blueprints, shop drawings and other working drawings show exact dimensions, tolerances, and the interrelationship of parts; annotations to the drawings document changes made during the course of the work. Specifications developed by the inventor will prescribe the exact materials, dimensions, and workmanship necessary to build the invention. The inventor may produce a technical manual to record specifications, schematics, wiring diagrams, and other technical data. The inventor may choose to record progress in a variety of visual formats, including photographs, slides, videotapes, and film, or on audiotape or in an electronic format. Project files and correspondence files provide in-depth records on all aspects of research and development, but often contain much extraneous material. Progress reports and summaries provide more of an overview of progress and results while final reports provide conclusive information with less detail. Presentation drawings intended for use in summary reports or sales presentations are cleaner than the working drawings and better document the final results. Financial records such as purchasing records, budget statements, correspondence with accountants, and audit reports, provide insight into the scale of the inventor's work and his or her investment in the outcome. In addition, the inventor's records may include grant applications or other funding proposals which reveal a great deal about the invention itself and the inventor's intentions.
During the development process, the inventor will need to ensure the feasibility of the invention. He or she may conduct in-depth research into the mechanical or scientific principles involved. Research notes provide evidence of the concepts crucial to the invention and may explain why changes were made to the original idea. The inventor may submit the idea to technical consultants for review and evaluation, providing them a full report on the invention and plans for its development. The consultant's report, in turn, provides a detailed evaluation of the invention and makes significant recommendations. Although no longer required by the Patent Office, the inventor may develop a model of the invention as an explanatory aid, or build a prototype hi order to work out the bugs. Once a working model or prototype has been developed, the inventor may send it to an independent testing laboratory to ensure that it works or can easily be produced. Again, both the materials prepared by the inventor and the subsequent report are important documentary evidence. Consultants' reports can be found among the inventor's own papers as well as in the files of the laboratory or professional consultant that prepared them. The latter, however, will be covered by a confidentiality contract designed to protect the inventor's proprietary rights to the idea.
Once the developmental work is done, the inventor needs to secure legal title and rights to the invention in order to benefit from it. This is done by obtaining a patent from the U.S. Patent Office. The patent is a grant which protects an individual's intellectual property rights to an invention. These rights, which are defined by the claims of the patent, can be licensed or sold, and that is how the inventor makes a profit. The patent is defensive in nature, in that it prohibits the unauthorized manufacture, use, or sale of the invention without the patent holder's consent. Without this protection, anyone could make or sell the invention and the inventor would get nothing. In the past, patents have been protected for 17 years from the date of issue; as of June 1995, the period has been changed to 20 years from the date of application.
The patenting process itself is an asset in documenting an invention's development, since it mandates that the inventor spell out exactly what makes his or her invention "useful, novel, and non-obvious" and therefore worthy of being granted a patent. To obtain a patent, the inventor prepares an application whose specifications set forth his or her claims for the idea in very technical and legalistic terms. The specification describes the invention's advantages over existing devices, its method of construction, its function, and its potential. To reinforce these claims, the specification includes drawings that illustrate both the overall design and the concepts involved; close-up drawings provide additional details on significant features. Since the patent application is designed to answer all questions, it is one of the most important documents of record for the invention.
In addition to the patent application, the inventor may also complete one of the forms available from the Patent Office's Document Disclosure Program, or DDP. The DDP statement is designed to help inventors record all the relevant facts about their invention on one comprehensive form. The form is then placed on file with the Patent Office for two years in order to help establish priority of invention. The DDP, however, is only a document of record; it does not secure the inventor any legal rights regarding the invention or take the place of the patent application — as some inventors have learned to their regret. Copies of the DDP form may be found among the inventor's papers or in the files of his or her patent attorney.
After the patent application is sent, the inventor is mailed an official acknowledgment that it has been received and filed. This form — blue in color and therefore known as the "blue receipt" — provides the filing date and the serial number assigned to the application. Once on file, the invention has attained "patent pending" status while its claims are reviewed. The inventor's rights to obtain the patent are protected during this time, since the application is kept secret, and the inventor is free to display, manufacture and sell the invention. The patent review process usually takes about 18 months. The application is assigned to a patent examiner, who reviews its claims for usefulness and novelty and compares them to previous patents. Patent examiners are encouraged to view applications with skepticism and they always come up with at least one major objection. Within three to six months, these objections are presented to the inventor in form called an "office action" issued by the examiner. The review process generates considerable correspondence back and forth between the inventor, the patent attorney, and the patent examiner, as objections are raised and refuted, clarifications are made, new drawings prepared, and so on. Once the details are worked out to the examiner's satisfaction, the patent will be granted and assigned a patent number. The inventor then receives the official copy of the patent, signed and sealed by the Patent Commissioner. A similar application and review process is necessary to patent an invention in another country and similar documents, including the foreign patent itself, may be found in the inventor's files if the invention is patented abroad.
The inventor's activities do not stop once he or she has obtained a patent and neither should the archivist's. It is probably as important to document the commercial product that results from an inventor's idea as it is to document the idea itself. After all, the product is the inventor's motivation — as Thomas Edison allegedly put it, "Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent."(2) Furthermore, the commercial success or wide-spread use of a product is often a good indication of the invention's significance. And the significance of an invention is what determines whether or not we want to study it in the first place. Archivists should therefore investigate the
records of the manufacturing and marketing steps that lead to the final product.
There are three ways in which the inventor can benefit from the intellectual rights that have been granted by the patent. He or she can retain the rights and bear the cost of making and selling the invention themselves, in the hopes of getting rich. Or the inventor can sell the rights to a manufacturer to produce and sell it, in return for a guaranteed, immediate profit. Or the inventor can license the rights to a manufacturer, in exchange for royalty payments for each item sold. Most inventors choose to license their invention rather than produce it themselves because licensing is easier and requires less investment. Obviously, how closely the inventor is involved in the manufacturing and sales process depends on the method chosen; this, in turn, will determine the volume and types of records to be found among his or her papers. The remaining documentation will be found in the records of the manufacturer.
Having decided upon a strategy, the inventor needs to interest a manufacturer in the invention. Initial contacts, consisting of letters of inquiry and proposals, will generate considerable correspondence, including letters of rejection and invitations for the inventor to make a formal presentation. Materials prepared for presentation may be in written form, such as reports, proposals, photographs or drawings, or may take the form of slides, videotapes, charts, or overhead projections if the presentation is to be made in person. In addition, the inventor will usually have a prototype in hand at this point, in order to be able to show what the actual product would look like and how it would function. Increasingly, inventors are using computer modeling instead of prototypes, since it is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to present the same concepts. Multiple computer disks can readily be made and distributed to a number of manufacturers at the same time. Since all presentation records are designed to succinctly explain the invention and its potential, they are invaluable materials for its documentation.
After securing the interest of a manufacturer, the inventor will enter into a formal agreement with them for the production of the invention. Preliminary drafts and final versions of contracts and licensing agreements, specifying the terms under which the intellectual property rights are conveyed to the manufacturer, will be found in the inventor's files, hi those of his or her patent attorney, and in the files of the manufacturer's legal department or corporate attorney.
Once committed to the invention, the manufacturer will follow a logical sequence of steps to turn it into a commercial product. With new industrial product failure rates running between 30 and 40 percent,(3) manufacturers are extremely cautious about the introduction of new products. A preliminary investigation will be undertaken to determine the potential profitability of the product and how it would fit into the company's business plans. Extensive research will be done to estimate market size and potential growth, expected sales, potential customers and their purchasing behavior, and the expected life cycle of the product. Over time, the company's marketing or sales departments will conduct surveys and polls, gather statistics, conduct tests and trial runs, and prepare reports and summaries of their findings, all in an effort to gauge the product's potential. In addition, information will be collected about expected competitors and their strengths and weaknesses in the marketplace. Marketing research data is especially useful in for comparing anticipated results with actual results once the product is on the market.
The next step in the production cycle is the development of product design and specifications, along with a timetable for implementing them. A prototype or limited production run will be created and field tested for analysis of functionality and marketability. If the results are satisfactory, production lines will be set up or retooled, packaging designed, and distribution networks prepared. At each stage of the process, a variety of records will be created that document how the inventor's concept was turned into a viable commercial product. These records show the labor necessary to make the invention actually work — to "reduce it to practice." Changes in design and development will have been implemented to meet the manufacturer's concerns for materials, functionality and maintenance, production costs, packaging, environmental impact, and regulatory requirements. Product development records will considerably exceed the volume of records on the original invention but they are important to understanding how the invention was transformed into the finished product.(4)
When the product is ready for market, it will probably be the focus of a coordinated advertising campaign aimed at the target audience previously identified through marketing research. Ads may be developed for the print media, including newspapers, popular magazines, and trade journals, for broadcast on TV and radio, and for point-of-purchase displays. Records from the company's advertising department will reveal the rationale behind the chosen strategy and the planning that went into the advertisements. If the company lacks an in-house advertising department, these services may be contracted out to a local or national agency, whose client files should also be examined. Relevant client files may even be located in an archival institution, since the records of several large agencies have been donated to various repositories. In addition, archival or museum collections of printed ephemera — focused on local, regional, or national history, or on a specialized topic — may contain a considerable amount of advertising materials on the product. Advertisements are useful for documenting the product, its intended audience, and the marketing strategy used by the company. They also provide insight into larger issues of American culture, conveying information about values and practices not otherwise well recorded.
The company may also choose to promote the new product through a publicity campaign. Publicity efforts may either center around the inventor, who makes public appearances, gives interviews, and makes the round of the talk shows, or they may involve publicity stunts such as give-aways or "buy one get one free" deals. Again, a campaign like this may be developed by either an in-house department or contracted to an outside agency. Client files from either source will provide details on the planning and implementation of the events, while the events themselves will be recorded in print, on audio or videotape, or with photographs. Other sources of promotional documentation include brochures, catalogs, leaflets and other sales literature prepared by the company to help sell the product. The effectiveness of advertising and publicity campaigns will be reflected in the bottom line — sales of the new product. Information on sales will be found in reports prepared by the sales or marketing departments and in statistics tabulated by the accounting department. The responses of individual consumers, expressed in letters of complaint or compliment, may be found in the files of the public relations office or even the Chief Executive Officer.
The final source for documenting the inventive process is the finished product as sold to consumers. An effort should be made to preserve at least one example, along with the other models and prototypes that were built during the development process. If the archivist's facility is not capable of accommodating three dimensional objects, or is not affiliated with a museum to which these objects can be transferred, strong efforts should be made to locate an appropriate repository that can accept them. Failing that, the objects should be thoroughly documented by photographs, videotapes and measured drawings.
Most of the kinds of records that I have outlined in this presentation will be created whether the inventor worked independently or in a corporate research and development laboratory. In a corporate setting, however, the archivist should be aware of the existence of a multitude of administrative units whose functions intersect with the inventor and whose records may be important for documenting the inventive process. Since corporations are organized along functional lines, these records should be easy to locate through a careful study of the corporate organization chart. Each functional department will contain project files that cover that unit's involvement with the invention. For example, the legal department probably supervised all patent matters and scrutinized inventions for potential liabilities. Files in the personnel office will document the inventor's career and reflect the importance of his or her work to the corporation, through promotions, bonuses and other rewards. The financial office's records will contain budgetary information about the invention's development. Various reports and memoranda may exist in a vice presidential office which had overall responsibility for research or product development. Other records may be found in the machine shop or laboratory where designs were built and tested, or in the photo department, where inventions were systematically recorded in photos and negatives or on film.
As in any bureaucracy, information will occasionally be duplicated in several corporate departments. This is good news for archivists, since it enhances the probability that the records needed to document the invention will survive. In addition, the records of one department may be more accessible than those of another, due to legal restrictions, corporate policy, or conflict of personalities, so the duplication of information in several offices is advantageous. Archivists should also be aware of the tendency for information to be summarized as it rises within the corporation, with lots of detailed data at the bottom of the corporate ladder and almost no details at the top. The records of each functional unit in the organization should be evaluated in light of the totality of records available, in order to ensure a thorough documentation of the invention under study.
In this presentation, I have tried to describe the inventive process in as logical a sequence as possible, but archivists should remember that the inventive process does not follow a strictly linear course from the gleam in an inventor's eye to the finished product in the consumer's hand. Different activities take place at different times, especially as the inventor seeks to develop and market his or her invention. Several inventions or experiments may occupy the inventor simultaneously. Inventions may take years to develop, depending on the inventor's financial resources or the amount of time available to pursue the work. These factors can lead to a great deal of disarray in the inventor's papers or the intermixing of records about several inventions. It is also important to remember that not every set of inventor's papers or manufacturer's records will include all types of documentation, since all inventions do not necessarily produce the same kinds of records. In addition, natural attrition — archival Darwinianism, as it were — will ensure that many records will not survive at all. Given these problems, and the lengthy and complicated nature of the inventive process, an imaginative and wide-ranging search such as I have outlined may be the best way to meet the challenge of documenting the inventive process.
Craig Orr is Assistant Manuscripts Archivist, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
(1) Halvonik, John P., The American Inventor's Handbook. 3rd ed. (Gaithersburg, Md: The Author, 1995), glossary. 2 Harshaw Research, Inc., stationery letterhead, March 25, 1996.
(3) Haas, Robert W., Industrial Marketing Management: Text and Cases. 4th ed. (Boston: PWS-Kent Publishing Co., 1989), p. 213.
(4) Ibid, pp. 213-215.