Guest Post: Mark Twain’s Patent Interference

Guest Post by Ed Ergenzinger, JD, PhD, Director of Intellectual Property & Legal Affairs, Duke Human Vaccine Institute

With the conversion of the U.S. patent system from a first-to-invent regime to a first-to-file regime, interference proceedings are set to be replaced by derivation proceedings. As patent practitioners contemplate the implications of this and other changes to the law with respect to their practices, I offer the following light diversion describing an interference that involved a certain well-known author/inventor.

Many people don't know that Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was also an inventor who was granted three patents during his lifetime. He was a strong believer in the value of the patent system, as evidenced by his book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in which the main character states, "…the very first official thing I did in my administration – and it was on the very first day of it too – was to start a patent office; for I knew that a country without a patent office and good patent laws was just a crab and couldn't travel anyway but sideways or backways."

One of Twain's inventions involved an adjustable strap for tightening clothes in order to avoid having to use uncomfortable suspenders. It was this invention that became the subject of an interference proceeding in 1871 between Twain and Henry C. Lockwood of Baltimore. As part of the proceeding, the parties had to file preliminary statements detailing the essential dates and facts relating to their respective cases.

But we're talking about Mark Twain. He couldn't just submit a dry legal document with numbered paragraphs. That wasn't his style.

No – instead he wrote a short story. It was sent from Hartford, CT to "Hon. M. D. Leggett, Com'r of Patents, Washington" and was dated Oct. 6, 1871:

Concerning Mark Twain's Elastic Strap.

The idea of contriving an improved vest strap is old with me; but the actual accomplishment of the idea is no older than the 13th of August last (to the best of my memory). This remark is added after comparing notes with my brother.

For four or five years I turned the idea of such a contrivance over in my mind at times, without a successful conclusion; but on the 13th of August last, as I lay in bed, I thought of it again, & then I said I would ease my mind and invent that strap before I got up – probably the only prophecy I ever made that was worth its face.

An elastic strap suggested itself & I got up satisfied. While I dressed, it occurred to me that in order to be efficient, the strap must be adjustable & detachable, when the wearer did not wish it to be permanent. So I devised the plan of having two or three buttonholes in each end of the strap, & buttoning it to the garment – whereby it could be shortened or removed at pleasure. So I sat down & drew the first of the accompanying diagrams (they are the original ones).

While washing (these details seem a little trivial, I grant, but they are history & therefore in some degree respect-worthy), it occurred to me that the strap would do for pantaloons also, & I drew diagram No. 2.

After breakfast I called on my brother, Orion Clemens, the editor of the 'American Publisher,' showed him my diagrams & explained them, & asked him to note the date & the circumstances in his note-book for future reference. (I shall get that note of his & enclose it, so that it may make a part of this sworn evidence.) While talking with him it occurred to me that this invention would apply to ladies' stays, & I then sketched diagram No. 3.

In succeeding days I devised the applying of the strap to shirts, drawers, &c., & when about to repair to Washington to apply for a patent, was peremptorily called home by sickness in my family. The moment I could be spared, however, I went to Washington & made application – about the 10th or 12th of September, ult., I think. I believe these comprise all the facts in the case.

Respectfully,
Saml L. Clemens

Twain won. His preliminary statement is believed to be the only one of his stories for which there is an affidavit supporting its truthfulness.

In addition to the patent he received for the elastic strap, Mark Twain was granted two other patents during his lifetime. One was for a historical trivia game, and the other was for a self-pasting scrapbook with a dried adhesive on the pages that only needed to be moistened before use (Twain was an avid scrapbooker). The scrapbook was hugely popular and sold over 25,000 copies, with one account indicating that it was his single most profitable book. And it didn't contain a single word.

Further reading:

14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Mark Twain’s Patent Interference

  1. Thanks for the story. This too shall pass into history.

    I would have opposed first to file – but the pto is so hopelessly pathetic at resolving an interference in a timely manner – first to invent is just broke. i note the irony in the pto raising fees to fix the backlog, but at the same time advocated for the expanded work load of opposition proceedings. The agency can’t keep up with its core mission, so it takes on an additional mission.

  2. I once read in a German book a quotation of Mark Twain, who stayed for a while in Berlin around 1891, implying that he considered the Imperial Patent Office as a sort of gold standard. (I can’t remember exactly which book that was, and it would take a little while to sift through my bookshelves).

    IIRC there was no indication of the source of the great author’s opinion, so it may possibly be apocryphal. He did however also had some unkind words for the Prussian taxman, though.

    Interference proceedings appear to me a kind of cruel and unusual punishment, so this could be an explanation for Twain’s judgment of the greener pastures overseas.

  3. Not exactly. It was the Paige Compositor typesetting machine, a predecessor of the Linotype, for mechanically setting lead type for newspapers. He lost over $300,000 – five million or more in today’s dollars.

    Ah yes. The Paige Compositor.

    “If he hadn’t run out of whitewash, he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.”

    LOL.

  4. … and one can only imagine the “colorful” prose he would utilize … to excoriate those who penned their names to the Patent Deform Act.

  5. > As I recall, Twain also lost much of his earnings and savings
    > investing in the patent of another. I believe an audio recorder
    > of some type.

    Not exactly. It was the Paige Compositor typesetting machine, a predecessor of the Linotype, for mechanically setting lead type for newspapers. He lost over $300,000 – five million or more in today’s dollars.

    See link to en.wikipedia.org

  6. Well he woulda saved himself a lot of time and an interfernce if he’d simply have written the idea down. Right?

    Uh, he did? The next two paragraphs indicate that he had Figs. 1 and 2 done before breakfast. He had his brother witness them that same day. It doesn’t get any better than that.

  7. As I recall, Twain also lost much of his earnings and savings investing in the patent of another. I believe an audio recorder of some type. Even sold the homestead to invest and never saw a return on the investment.

  8. Exactly! The Strap was never even recorded in my LOG.

    BECAUSE!!!!!!!!!!! the Strap I noticed on a Round Fender… you know the ones that POP ROLL AND DEFLATE!!!!!!!!! WAS AS GOOD AS IT COULD GETS. Mine was just really going to be used as a personal one. Not even a good Idea when you looked at the other Strap. The other as you know had a slide bar. It decided the adjustment length of the ROUND ROLLING FENDER. SOOOOOOOOOO although I am on a Turnip truck, I’m now driving it. And the Check stolen and written in Their hand, nice personal touch!

    Free at last free at last, I have seen the Mountain.
    Your Case is coming apart at the Seams. You shoulda used Nylon Thread!

  9. For four or five years I turned the idea of such a contrivance over in my mind at times, without a successful conclusion; but on the 13th of August last, as I lay in bed, I thought of it again, & then I said I would ease my mind and invent that strap before I got up – probably the only prophecy I ever made that was worth its face.

    Well he woulda saved himself a lot of time and an interfernce if he’d simply have written the idea down. Right? Right? Or, oh wait, maybe “invention” should, did, and always will require actually building the device or performing the method.

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