Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice

March 07, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

American Inventions: A History of Curious, Extraordinary, & Just Plain Useful Patents, by Stephen van Dulken. NYU Press. 288 pages. $26.95.

Though the principle of patents is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the federal government began numbering them only in 1836, as its files grew full. By 1911, 1 million had been registered, and that number had grown to 6 million by 1999. This scholarly and fact-packed volume is an authority-source for any aspiring inventor or designer who wants to protect an idea. Van Dulken, a patent librarian at the British Library who has done other books on inventions, is a serious man. His book is also a delight to anyone who enjoys obscurities and the nostalgia of inventions familiar -- the Raggedy Ann doll was patented in 1915; Barbie was patented in 1945, but did not go into production and on the market until 1955. There is a marvelously intricate automobile air-conditioning device registered in 1936. All the drawings -- and there are many of them -- are taken directly from the original filings in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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