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Let's talk about Edison

A friend of mine recently (by which I mean, back in March) sent me a link to an obituary of Artur Fischer, who died in February this year. Why yes, I am rather late with this blog post! I've been very busy, thanks for asking!

As the headline points out, Mr Fischer 'had more patents than Edison'. I was mildly surprised by this, both because I had never heard of this guy, and also because Edison is often widely held up as The Gold Standard when it comes to patents.

I suspect not a lot of people know about Mr Fischer, so this post is firstly a way of giving him a small, posthumous plug. It's also an opportunity to stick the boot into Edison. There's also a couple of small points to be made here about patent ownership, and what is sometimes referred to when talking about an invention as 'reduced to practice'.

Now, holding Edison up as your shining example of inventorship and sound business practice is....perhaps not the best idea. 'Edison debunking' was rather fashionable a few years ago, possibly triggered in part by this Oatmeal comic from 2012. Again, I'm late the party, but to stick my share of the boot in, one often quoted statistic about Edison is 'the greatest number of patents granted to a single person', the number generally quoted being 1,093. As Artur Fischer registered over 1,100, Edsion's record no longer stands.

Nevertheless, those are huge numbers of patents to be filing. Well, it's reasonably common knowledge that Edison didn’t invent most of the stuff that he applied to patent, he just filed the applications for the inventions that his assistants brought to him. He drove them so hard they were known as the insomnia squad. In fairness, he did often come up with the concept (the 1% inspiration). However, he usually left the hard work (the 99% perspiration) of making it work to his assistants. A good example is discussed in relation to his invention of the phonograph in this film here (from around 20.15).

The first small point from a modern legal perspective is this: there (probably) wouldn't actually be anything wrong with Edison claiming ownership of all those patents for stuff that his employees invented. Legally, if you commission someone to create something for you, or if someone is specifically employed by you invent stuff - for example employed specifically to do R&D - then it's almost always the case that any inventions they come up with belong to the commissioning party or the employer.

The second small point is this: as demonstrated by the 'phonograph' clip, an idea is one thing, but a working apparatus is another. In patent-speak, 'reduced to practice' roughly means that the invention can be re-created off paper and in the real world. In order to gain a patent for a time machine or a teleporter, you need to be able to describe how to build it in a way that others can reproduce.

So Edison didn't 'invent' 1000+ inventions. He owned them, but he didn't invent them.

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