Friday, May 25, 2018
Publication Date: 06/1/2011
Archive >  June 2011 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

We're Still Number 1 — Barely
Walter Salm, Editor
One of my absolutely favorite things to do as a technology editor/writer in the early 1960s was to visit the IEEE Show in New York City. In those days, it was the world's largest electronics trade show, but even New York didn't have adequate facilities. It filled every floor of the New York Coliseum, and spilled out into the ballroom exhibit areas of 5 or 6 nearby hotels.

At one IEEE show in particular, I recall a monster machine from Gardner-Denver that automatically connected multitudes of pins with a gantry-driven wire-wrap mechanism. And there was Walter with his nose flattened against the huge protective Plexiglas box closely watching every movement, every wire wrap. In those days, wire wrap was the preferred method of creating short-run complex wiring boards. The era of the 16-layer PC board still had not arrived. It was also a favorite way of creating hard-wired computer programming at a time when punched cards were still an important part of our data collecting technology.

Fast-forward 50 years. The NY Coliseum is long gone, along with the Hotel Biltmore, but the Big Apple does have the enormous Javits Center expo hall which is host this month to Atlantic Design/MDM etc. — that whole bunch of shows put on by Canon Communications.

What happened to the huge US electronics industry is history. But some of this is playing out in a most incredible way. America is the land of invention, innovation and technology leadership. How is it then that we keep losing both our leadership position and ownership of our own technology? Part of the answer lies in the way our Patent Office operates in Washington. While the Patent Office is self-sustaining (from the patent fees collected), there never seems to be enough money because Congress keeps dipping into the till.

Our constantly money-short elected lawmakers seem to have a penchant for finding money that has been rightfully earmarked for other purposes. An excellent example is our soon-to-be-bankrupt Social Security system as well as Medicare. But Patents?

It boils down to the fact that the U.S. Patent Office is terribly shorthanded because of Congress' high-handed behavior and cavalier attitude toward someone else?s money. The most obvious result of all of this is that Patents being issued are currently running nearly 2 years behind schedule. After 18 months have elapsed, the Patent Office has to permit examination of applications by anyone who wants to look, which includes the Chinese and a number of other countries who like to profit from our technological leadership. Their own patent offices are then flooded with similar applications, and by the time the U.S. Patent Office gets around to issuing that all-important document, it has become about as valuable as a piece of toilet paper.

This is a problem addressed by Acacia, a company that can be hired to protect intellectual property and shepherd patents through the sometimes-difficult process, while protecting the inventors (see Management, page 16 of this issue).

Trouble is, it's hard to protect anyone from overseas competitors who have this kind of assistance from members of our own government. This is just another example of how American business is being hampered by selfish and short-sighted elected officials. "Need money? The Patent Office has lots of it. Let's just appropriate some to take care of that road-building project."  

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