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The Beautiful Lost Art of Patent Drawings

By Rachel Swaby

Patents serve as a documented trail of accumulated knowledge. But the intricate illustrations that accompanied patents in the 1800s have become a lost folk art. Here's how modern regulation and intellectual property concerns have eliminated the beauty in these technical drawings.

On December 15, 1836, a fire broke out in Blodgett’s Hotel in Washington, D.C. The building was badly damaged, but the most devastating loss occurred in ideas. When the fire ripped through the hotel, the US Patent office was using the building as a home base, housing heaps of papers and thousands of models—all the patents submitted to the office since its opening in 1790. All in all, the flames destroyed some 9000 drawings of patents pending and approved—90 percent of what the office had acquired since it opened 46 years prior.

The patent office scrambled to piece together what was lost, consulting private records and reconstructing models. In the end, only 2,845 patents were restored. The law stated that without documentation, the patent’s claim was not valid. For the majority of patent holders, it was tough luck.

Image Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

Here’s the thing: Patents serve as a documented trail of accumulated knowledge. If someone wanted to patent something in these early days, they’d take a trip to the patent office and page through stacks of other people’s inventions.

Because the patent office was a kind of an ideas gallery, “The patents were drawn to capture someone’s vision of the world, the pride they have in their invention,” explains Steven Lubar, a history professor at Brown University. Illustrated contraptions were sometimes surrounded by elaborate scenes filled with detailed shading. It was possible because at the time, there were few regulations governing the pictures. “Making these drawings would have been so time consuming,” says Kevin Prince, a patent agent who wrote the book, The Art of the Patent. “In the past, there was more pride taken in what you presented to the patent office.”

Image Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

But times have changed. The intricate illustrations that frequently accompanied patents have been, for the most part, lost. Two hundred and twenty-three years of patents have given us a lot of reasons for the style shift. The most obvious being that the oldest ones—the ones that we think about when we think about the patent as art—were gobbled up by the flames of 1836. But the event also changed the way inventors were required to submit their work.

Fire Ladder patent drawing by James Johnson 4/18/1831

After the fire, the patent office started to required two copies of the drawings submitted—you know, just in case something terrible were to happened to the original. Not only that, but up until 1880, the patent office requested a model to accompany the description and the illustration. The original drawings worked hard to capture how the physical models functioned. For illustrators, two copies with so much detail was a lot of work. And for inventors, double the workload for illustrators meant double the money. A shift toward more utilitarian design began to take place.

Today there are even more strict regulations about how an idea is visually presented, from the “hatching with regularly spaced parallel oblique strokes” to the line thickness in order “to permit adequate reproduction.” Lubar, who curated an exhibit on patent illustrations and technical art for the Smithsonian that went online in 2004, explains that, these days, “they’re just technical drawings.”

But there’s another reason modern patents scrub their applications of too many details. Leaving a drawing vague casts a wider intellectual property net. Too many details can limit what the patent covers. Prince gives an example of a client patenting an ice cream cake mold with ice cream cone design lining the perimeter. “We didn’t show them going around the entire mold because that would have limited him,” explains Prince. The patent was only presented with a slice of the mold, which left the number of cones on the cake ambiguous.

And then there’s just the sheer pace of the modern patent office. Only 10,000 patents were issued in the patent office’s first 46 years. In 2012 alone, there were 576,763 patent applications submitted. Expect drawings to get even more hurried. Before March 13, if two competing ideas were submitted, the Patent Office would grant the prize to the party that invented the thing first. But today, it’s the first to file that will win the dispute. What does that mean? Illustrations will be produced under an even greater time crunch.

Image Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office

Today it’s much less common, as Prince writes in his book, that “the patent illustrator’s sense of artistry jumps out between the rigid requirements of the patent law.” The accidental works of art have mostly been sanded out by time and regulation. But it makes these early drawings, crafted by an army of anonymous artists, even the more striking. Their place in history, says Lubar, “has almost become folk art.”

See a gallery of great patent art here.