The Dying Art of Patent Drawing

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From Intrinsic to Chicken Scratches, these 21 patent drawings illustrate the devolution of the art over 200 years.

As a patent analyst, one of the first aspects of this document of invention that grabs my attention is the drawings. Every illustration that accompanies a patent’s description gives the first best glimpse of an innovator’s creative imagination – a visual proof of man’s ever-expanding quest for solving problems and doing things a better way.

The art that faded away in a fire

Patent drawings were once considered a work of art. If we create a gallery of patent drawings arranged chronologically since 1790 when the USPTO was started, it throws the light on present day drawings as nothing more than simple lines and computer-generated numbers. This is quite a downturn from intricately detailed art that once accompanied patent applications and were so da Vinci-ish. In the past 222 years, patent drawings have degraded from detailed works of art to simplistic line drawings that can barely be called illustrations. The presentation below says it all.

And this aesthetic degradation is all because of a fire that broke out in 1836. The raging flames destroyed over 9,000 patents, and up went those beautiful drawings in the smoke.

Rules related to application filing and patent illustrations witnessed a radical change the following year. Details began to fade away; application rules demanded inventors to submit two illustrations — one for safekeeping in the patent office; the other attached to the patent grant transmitted to the applicant. Making duplicates of elaborate illustrations was not only cumbersome and costly, but also time consuming. The patent office no longer required patent applicants to hire an official draftsman to draw an invention.

Is it the fire or changing industrial trends?

This aesthetic degradation of patent illustrations might not be a surprising fact though. A closer analysis reveals that this is just a reflection of the cultural shift industries have gone through. With an increasing focus on cost-cutting, the pride in representing one’s invention artistically and making a mark has somehow disappeared over time. Isn’t it also sad that the patent draftsman, who once not just contributed livid drawings, but also added intricate, cursive labelling to the drawings, is no longer acknowledged in the patent? The labels used these days are also in rather plain fonts.

In 2000, the USPTO made another amendment that pushed the need of aesthetic patent drawings even lower on priority. It reduced the number of revisions required to correct drawings. Eventually, the USPTO enforced a rule that patent drawings must be in black ink to make them easier to reproduce. Even today, applicants can only submit a colour drawing if they file a petition and pay an extra fee. Specifically, the patent office stated that a drawing should just be informative enough to communicate the invention to the examiner and readable enough so as to usefully fit in published applications and patents. So, while a modern drawing does have to explain an invention, it holds no obligation to explain it in an aesthetic manner.

Keeping in mind that too much detail can possibly limit a patent’s scope, today’s requirements call for fewer details with a deliberate shift towards a relatively vague technical drawing. Another motivation behind reducing drawing details is to make it easier incorporate requested revisions and modifications without much difficulty.

As a result of this, artists whose work compelled patent officials to delve into the dense particulars, remain unheralded. Unfortunately, patent illustrations have no place for an artist’s signature. Artistic drawing techniques, such as shading, texturing, 3D depth perception, etc ., slowly became obsolete and unwanted in such informative invention disclosures.

Subhasri Das
Subhasri Das

Subhasri is a technocrat who enjoys reading between the lines of patents to understand their hidden value.


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