By Julianne F. Metzger, Public Affairs Specialist, Office of the Chief Communications Officer, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued U.S. Patent No. 10,000,000 today. Patent 10 million represents a momentous achievement of the human ingenuity and innovation in America. It is a distinct moment to celebrate the millions of inventors, entrepreneurs, and professionals that feed and support the American intellectual property (IP) system.
Many of the inventors and innovators who became famous for their revolutionary patents discovered their passion for science during naval service. Examples of the inventions created by visionary Navy veterans have become ubiquitous in everyday American life. The National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) has twenty-seven inductees who have served in the U.S. Navy.
From waves to microwaves
Percy L. Spencer joined the Navy at 18. While serving on the USS Dixie, he made himself an expert on radio technology: “I just got hold of a lot of textbooks and taught myself while I was standing watch at night,” said Spencer.
As a civilian defense contractor, Spencer helped Raytheon win a government contract to develop and produce combat radar equipment for MIT’s Radiation Laboratory. This was of huge importance to the Allies and became the military’s second highest priority project during WWII, behind the Manhattan Project. While working at MIT, Spencer developed a more efficient way to manufacture magnetrons increasing production from 17 a day to 2,600 a day.
Spencer’s most famous work, the discovery of microwave cooking, was an accidental outcome of his magnetron research. In 1945, he was in the lab standing near a magnetron and noticed that a peanut candy bar in his pocket had melted. Spencer and other Raytheon staff members began working on developing a magnetron-powered oven for cooking, and Spencer filed his first related patent that year: U.S. Patent No. 2,495,429 for a “Method of Treating Foodstuffs.”
Invention that took off
Leroy Grumman demonstrated an interest in aviation at an early age. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve in June 1917 as a machinist’s mate 2nd class. Though Grumman applied to be pilot, the Navy medically disqualified his application. However, due to a clerical error the Navy ordered Grumman to a course in aircraft inspection for pilot trainees. After the Navy commissioned him as a naval aviator, it once again ordered him to MIT. This time, Grumman’s course of study was the new discipline of aeronautical engineering.
Following the Navy, Leroy Grumman invented a unique folding-wing mechanism that advanced the safety and versatility of carrier-based naval aircraft. This invention more than doubled the number of planes that an aircraft carrier could hold. Grumman also designed more reliable, retractable landing gear for amphibious aircraft.
By the middle of WWII, Grumman was the Navy’s top aircraft supplier. In 1943 Grumman’s company produced the most military aircraft ever built in one plant in a single month. Well-known Grumman aircrafts included Wildcat, Avenger, and Hellcat. His company manufactures reliable, rugged aircraft to this day based on his design for the Sto-Wing folding mechanism and U.S. Patent No. 1,859, 624 for Retractable Landing Gear.
Aoogah, not eureka
After serving as a naval signalman during World War II, Harold “Bud” Froehlich led the development of the first a small deep-sea submersible, Alvin. The independently maneuverable submarine could hold three people and dive to over 14,000 feet, granting previously unavailable access to the ocean’s depths and enabling groundbreaking research.
Froehlich’s design contained a new and highly buoyant material called syntactic foam, hollow aluminum spheres, and Plexiglass windows, and featured a mechanical arm; detachable steel cockpit; propulsion units enabling forward, horizontal and vertical movement; added ballast for improved underwater stability; and landing skids for resting on the ocean floor.
Owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Alvin took its first dive in 1964. During the Cold War in 1966, Alvin located a lost hydrogen bomb off the Spanish Coast. In 1974, Alvin allowed scientists to map the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which helped confirm the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift. In 1977, Alvin took scientists down 9,000 feet off the coast of the Galapagos Islands, where they found about 300 new species of aquatic animals. In 1986, Alvin made possible the first pictures of the sunken RMS Titanic. Alvin has also assisted with environmental waste studies and missions. Modified over the years, Froehlich’s US Patent No. 3,104,641, for an Underseas Vehicle is still in use today, the longest operating deep-sea submersible.
These inventions along with car radios, lasers, antibiotics, drywall, and many others all started as the intellectual property of former sailors or naval aviators. Sea service often led to the inspiration for inventions, or instilled in the inventor desire to continue in a field they experienced during naval service. Behind each of these game-changing innovations was a U.S. patent and a strong patent system, rooted in the nation’s Constitution, a system that continues to protect and incentivize the kinds of inventions that made our military the best the world has ever known.
You can learn more about the USPTO’s 10 Million Patents initiative, including an interactive historical timeline of U.S. patent history, at https://10millionpatents.uspto.gov/.