irtually every speech on globalization these days seems to peg innovation and education
as solutions to the United States’ competitiveness problem. Given current trade policies that
support low prices versus a sustainable manufacturing base framed by fair trade policies, there is
good news on the innovation front from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Recently, the USPTO issued patent No. 7 million to DuPont senior researcher John P. O’Brien.
The patent was granted for “polysaccharide fibers” and a process for their production. According to
the USPTO, the fibers have cotton-like properties, are biodegradable and are useful in textile
Just when you think the world is out of big ideas, the progression of patents tells a
different story. As the USPTO points out, it took 75 years to get from patent No. 1, issued in
1836, to patent No. 1 million in 1911 — issued for a tubeless vehicle tire.
On April 30, 1935, patent No. 2 million was issued for a vehicle wheel to increase the safety
and longevity of pneumatic tires — 24 years to progress 1 million patents.
Patent No. 3 million was issued Sept. 12, 1961 to a General Electric Co. inventor for an
automated system that translated letters, numbers and symbols to data processing code — 26 years to
progress another 1 million patents.
Patent No. 4 million was issued 15 years later on Dec. 28, 1976, for an asphalt aggregate
A little more than 14 years later, on March 19, 1991, patent No. 5 million was issued to a
University of Florida inventor for a more efficient way to produce fuel ethanol.
Less than nine years later, on Dec. 7, 1999, patent No. 6 million was issued to 3Com Corp.’s
Palm Computing for its HotSync® technology.
And now, just a little more than six years after that, patent No. 7 million has been issued
to DuPont’s O’Brien — from 6 million to 7 million patents in less than one-tenth the time it took
to achieve those first million starting back in 1836.
By all appearances, the US creation of patentable innovations seems to be gaining speed.
Could this be the engine economists rally around? It might also be one reason the buying cycles for
technology and major capital investment seem to be contracting. A new, more productive technology
is just around the corner. Invest when you can — invest when you have to.
Dealing with the chaos created by global change isn’t new — but it does seem intensified. On
the one hand, participating in the global supply chain seems imperative. On the other, who could
possibly factor in the effects of a bird flu or Danish cartoons?
For now, and for much of past industrial history, innovation is a powerful engine that is
accelerating. It was refreshing to see patent No. 7 million go to a fiber producer — and there are
many innovations yet to be cracked.