One way for an inventor to feature prominently in the history books is to be an Edison, a Pasteur or a Tesla. Another is to hope your patent lands on a big, round number. (Of course, you can also try to do both.)
Samuel Hopkins’ improvement on “the making of pot ash and pearl ash” was not nearly as important as, say, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb or Wilbur and Orville Wright’s “flying machine.” Instead Hopkins’ claim to fame is that his was the first patent issued in the United States, by President George Washington in 1790.
Similarly, Otto Heinigke’s “design for pumps,” issued in 1877, probably would be lost in obscurity had it not been issued as patent No. 10,000. Or Edward Hyed’s “Combined Flush Tank and Manhole” (patent No. 500,000) in 1893, or Francis H. Holton’s “Vehicle Tire” (1,000,000) in 1911, or Matthew Carroll’s “Windshield washer conditioner,” which collects and “conditions” rainwater to replenish fluids in the windshield washer reservoir (9,000,000), in 2015.
The next big milestone — 10 million — will happen sometime “in the summer of 2018,” according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website.
John Nelson, a molecular biologist at GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, has been monitoring the run-up to 10 million very closely. Nelson has a lot of experience with the USPTO. Along with several others, his name is in the “inventors hall of fame” in the lobby of the Global Research offices in Niskayuna, where he works. His patents include a method for amplifying DNA that is widely used on small samples of DNA prior to running tests. In May, he received his 48th patent, No. 9,957,548, “Methods of capturing sperm nucleic acids,” for a method of identifying and separating the DNA from sperm cells in a swabbed sample, which he believes could be of some forensic use in rape cases.
Since the 9 million milestone in April 2015, Nelson has observed, the patent office has issued 6,000 or so new patents a week — with a whopping 31 patents per week, on average, going to inventors at GE. “Sometimes it’s more than 6,000, sometimes it’s less,” Nelson says. “It’s always in a number divisible by 100, and it’s always on a Tuesday. At that rate, it’s simple math to figure out. We know almost certainly that the 10 millionth patent will be issued on June 19th.”
For any inventor, the odds of snagging the 10 millionth patent are pretty long. But Nelson is determined to shorten them as much as he can. Candidates for the 10 millionth patent were put in the pipeline a few years ago, because it takes a while for the patent office to evaluate an application and issue a “notice of allowance.” Upon receiving such a notice, an inventor must pay a fee — typically $1,000 or so — before the USPTO will issue the patent. That happens, in Nelson’s experience, about five weeks after the issue fee payment.
Nelson has already received a notice of allowance for a “Device and Method of Collection for RNA Viruses” (Application No. 20170145387), which he filed a few years ago with GE colleagues Robert Duthie and Erik Kvam. It describes a method for storing a blood sample on a piece of special absorptive paper treated to inactivate dangerous viruses, making it possible to transport the sample safely without refrigeration. Nelson is holding off on paying the fees until the middle of May in hopes of increasing the chance that the patent will be included in the batch issued on June 19th.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that a lot of other inventors are similarly trying to win the prize of the 10 millionth patent, throwing another variable into the works.
But Nelson doesn’t think so. “I can’t imagine more than a handful of people will be going to these lengths,” he says. “When I talk to people about my strategy, everybody is surprised.”