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The Inventor's Mentor

September 2009

You Snooze you Lose

Have you ever had an idea for a product and later found it sold in a store or advertised on the Web? It has happened to many of my acquaintances who now kick themselves for not being more proactive in protecting their idea. In this column I shall discuss two inventions, the telephone and television, the conception of which was mired in controversy.

The Telephone
A few hours made all the difference at the US Patent office, on February 14 1876. That day, two inventors, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both submitted patent applications for the invention of the telephone. What actually happened depends on which account you believe: according to Gray's account, he filed a patent caveat (equivalent, in those days, to a provisional application) in the morning, soon after the patent office opened. Bell's application was filed a few hours afterwards, shortly before noon by Bell's lawyer. The attorney, who may have been privy to Gray’s filing, took steps to expedite the processing of Bell’s applications. He requested that the filing fee be recorded immediately and that the application be taken to the examiner immediately. Later that afternoon, the fee for Gray's application was entered. Gray’s application remained in the in-basket until the following day when it was taken to the examiner.

This race at the Patent Office led to an expensive lawsuit. Eventually Gray abandoned his caveat, thus allowing Bell to be granted U.S. Patent 174,465 for the telephone on 7 March 1876.

Another invention with a controversial conception is television. Two inventors were competing for the title of inventor of television: Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, a Russian-born American inventor who was working for Westinghouse, and Philo Taylor Farnsworth, a farm boy from the state of Utah who was backed by private capital.

Zworykin patented his idea first in 1923 and is therefore credited for being the father of television. However his iconoscope was essentially a primitive television camera; he could not get it to work until 1934 and his patent was not issued until 1938. Thus, at the time of filing, Zworykin’s description of his invention was not fully adequate because it could not enable a “person having ordinary skills in the art” to build and use his invention.

Farnsworth was the first to successfully demonstrate on September 7 1927 the transmission of television signals. He used a scanning tube of his own design for which he received a patent in 1930.

In the late 1930’s, RCA had hired Zworykin and tried to assert its right to television. The president of RCA wanted to control television in the same fashion as it controlled radio. He vowed that, “RCA earns royalties, it does not pay them.” A 50 million dollar legal battle subsequently ensued.

During the course of the trial, it became clear that Farnsworth held the priority patent in the technology. Even though Zworykin had filed an earlier patent, his patent was not enabling. In addition, Farnsworth was able to prove that he had conceived of the idea first: his high school science teacher was subpoenaed to testify that, as a 14 year old, Farnsworth had shared his ideas of his television scanning tube with him.

Having lost the law suit to Farnsworth, RCA for the first time in its history began paying royalties for television in 1939.

Moral of the story
If you think you have a good idea don’t let it go to waste. You must act immediately before someone else beats you to it. You need to do the following:

1)                Make sure the idea has money-making potential. A well thought out business plan is an excellent first step.

2)                Check that the idea has not been invented before. Perform a search on Google; if you don’t find anything ask a professional to repeat the search to make sure that you haven’t missed anything. A thorough search may save you a lot of wasted time, money and effort later.

3)                Test your idea to make certain that it works. You can do this by constructing a simple proof of principle prototype and/or perform some calculations to make sure your idea is sound.

4)                Protect your idea by filing a patent.

For archived newsletters and a lot of information for the small inventor go to: If you have any question you can contact me at (858)259-2226 or email me at This newsletter should not be construed as legal advice. ©2010 by George Levy.