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Patently obvious

9:24 AM  Sep 5th, 2014
by Audrey Starr

In 1875, there were 3,112 patents granted by the British Intellectual Property Office. In 2014, one of them — Patent No. 2168 — can be found in the University of Dayton archives.

Brought to Albert Emanuel Library by the late Brother James Loughran, S.M., in March 1949, the patent has, since then, remained ensconced in its original protective case — a heavy, round clay box that reminds you more of a tortilla warmer than a legal document safe.

“From the possessions of Mrs. Connolly of Washington, D.C.,” wrote Loughran on the note attached to his delivery. At the time, Loughran was on the maintenance staff of Dayton’s Chaminade High School; he relocated soon after to California, where he spent nearly 30 years on staff at Marianist high schools there. He died in 1977.

“I believe it’s what is called a letters patent,” said Jennifer Brancato, University archivist. “The patent itself — which opens to nearly 30 inches wide by 20 inches tall — appears to be made of parchment, which needs the same conditions as paper, so it can last an extremely long time with the proper temperature, humidity and storage.”

While we don’t know why Loughran brought a 75-year-old patent to UD, nor how it came to be in his possession, we do know something about its technology. Filed by James Samuel Brooks of Pittsburgh, the application was for “an invention of an improved method of and apparatus for backing electro-type shells.”

First invented in 1838, electrotyping is a chemical method for forming metal pieces that produce an exact facsimile of an object with an irregular surface, such as a coin or sculpture. By the late 1800s, electrotyping had also become the standard method for producing plates for letterpress printing, a practice that was widespread into the 1970s.

The method Brooks invented made the process more efficient. Machinists would pour metal around forms that often shifted or floated, then spend hours trimming excess from the edges and smoothing uneven areas. Brooks’ invention kept the form still, resulting in smooth surfaces that were the exact thickness desired, saving time and labor.

“Generally, an American inventor would seek a patent in another country to protect the invention in that country,” notes Michael Jacobs, a registered patent attorney and Distinguished Practitioner in Residence in the UD School of Law’s program in law and technology. “The patent may have some historical significance, but it is hard to tell. I wasn’t able to find much information, nor trace it back to a corresponding U.S. patent. It remains a mystery.”

While Brooks’ method was handy, it wasn’t especially fruitful, and the patent expired in 1895. Several similar patents were filed in the U.S. in the 1930s.

UD faculty are no strangers to the patent office. See Page 6 of the Autumn 2014 issue for the latest invention from a biology professor.

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