10,000,000 and counting

GBrian Tillotson

Brian Tillotson, Senior Technical Fellow

By Brian Tillotson, Senior Technical Fellow

Earlier this summer, the United States issued patent number 10,000,000. This followed only three years after patent number 9,000,000.

The first million U.S. patents took 75 years, from 1836 to 1911. Invention today is going faster. But why?

A century-old joke holds that a U.S. patent commissioner said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” In reality, invention works the opposite way. The more things people invent, the more things people can invent.

Let’s look at U.S. Patent 10,000,000: Coherent LADAR Using Intra-Pixel Quadrature Detection. It uses a laser to make a picture where the brightness of each pixel shows distance to some part of the scene. Lots of people have done this already. An inventor at Raytheon figured out how to do it better using things other people had invented: a laser, optical systems, focal plane arrays and other electronics. He couldn’t come up with this invention until the others were available.

There’s the same pattern in most other patents. U.S. Patent 1,000,000 is an improvement in vehicle tires. Can’t invent that until you have both vehicles and tires. U.S. Patent 4,000,000 is a process for recycling asphalt. Can’t invent that until you have asphalt.

And so on.

Now if you’re in a company that needs a steady supply of new products or technologies, what can you do? Answer: Try to help your employees keep up with what’s already been invented.

Obviously we can’t do that for all kinds of invention, but we don’t have to. In the aerospace industry, we probably don’t need to know about the latest patented rosebush (yes, you can patent plants) or cat toy. But it’s helpful to know what new ideas are coming along for airplanes, spacecraft and the items that go inside them.

How do we do that? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Have a big annual conference for employees. Let people from all around the company show their latest work. At Boeing’s conference, experienced engineers from our spacecraft division rub elbows with interns in our helicopter factories. Everybody goes home glowing with new ideas.
  2. Have an internal technical journal. Much of your company’s best, most innovative work is proprietary—you can’t publish it outside the company. Boeing has a high-quality, peer-reviewed journal for internal work. It lets all our people keep up on the latest problems and the newest solutions.
  3. Have a team focused on matching needs to good ideas. Boeing has a technology strategy group with engineers who keep a thumb on the pulse of all R&D across the company and on the needs of our various businesses. If an employee in India has a solution to a problem in St. Louis, these engineers put them in touch.

These ideas are not unique. Microsoft Research has a conference. IBM has a journal. But if more organizations practice this innovation-accelerating behavior, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will be issuing patent number 11,000,000 in no time.