Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Answer: Finding original patents?


Patents don't define a market... 

... but they're a decent proxy for when a market comes into being. This week's Challenge asks about finding the patent dates for two devices that are fairly clever, definitely deserving of patent protection.    

Can you find the patent dates for these two devices?  

1. What's the patent date for the apple parer seen above?  (See another view below for a similar device with an apple in place.) 

I remember that Google has a Patents corpus (, so I went there and searched for  

[ "apple parer" sargent foster ] 

-- surprise!  There were  NO results! 

When I did the search without Sargent, I found this patent for an "improved apple parer" (US116943, July 11, 1871), by Calvin Foster.  It's much more complicated than the device shown above, but it also slices the apples as they're pared.  

But I was expecting to find a patent with both Sargent and Foster's names.  And this isn't it--is there another patent?  

To explore a bit, I did a slightly different search without using the exact ("parer") term found in the advertisement--this was my second try at searching for the title (or claims) of the patent.  I used: 

[ apple paring Sargent Foster ] 

but as you might expect, there were a lot of results.  Luckily, the result I was searching for was in the 5th position: 

You have to read through the OCR failures ("Machine fob pabiwg" should be "Machine for paring apples").  Luckily, the full-text is recognized correctly, which is why my search for "paring apples" worked.  

I was curious if I could be more precise, so I put in a date restriction by using the Patents search UI.  Here you can see I put in Jan 1 1871 as the latest date I was interested in. (I just guessed this--looking at the style of the drawing, it looked like 1871 or earlier.)  Lo and behold, the search is very precise: 

This search returns exactly the one result for patent US10078A (1853), the "Machine for Paring Apples."  

With this as the original artwork: 
Note that the text "Apple Parer" is handwritten in the diagram. 
Apparently the OCR doesn't recognize that text in the illustration.  

Interestingly, it was invented by Ephraim L. Pratt of Worcester, MA, and then assigned to J. Sargent and Dan P. Foster, as shown in the "Sargent and Foster's Patent" on the top image.  

Assigning a patent transfers the ownership of the patent from the inventor (Ephraim) to the persons (or business) that will then own the patent. 

And now you can see the mistake I made in the first search--I found "An improved apple parer" by Calvin Foster, that was not the original invention by Pratt in 1864 and assigned to Sargent and Dan Foster I can speak from personal experience--"Dan" is not the same as "Calvin."    

As I poked around, I found even more patents by Ephraim Pratt--turns out he invented multiple apple paring inventions!  (Here's another one assigned to George Carter from 1864. 

Bottom line: patent US10078A  for the device shown above, was 1853, the "Machine for Paring Apples."  

2. And the device that captured my heart, a stapler that works WITHOUT staples!  When was this (or something very much like it) first patented? 

I was curious if I could find this using "regular" Google search, so I tried this search: 

     [ stapleless stapler ] 

and then looked at the images--was really surprised to see that there's an entire universe of shockingly colored stapleless staplers out there. 

But by adding the term "antique" to the query, I got much better results: 

 By looking at these results, it would seem that this is a "Bump Fastener" from the Bump Fastener Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  (Notice that there's even chip in the upper left corner about "bump paper fastener.")  

Searching for [ Bump Fastener Company ] quickly got me to the official LaCrosse County Bump Fastener page, which tells me that "...this handy office tool fastens two or more pieces of paper together. The fastener cuts a small triangular-shaped hole in the paper, folds back the cut triangle, and then slides it into a slot cut in the paper to fasten it in place." And that it was invented in 1910.  

That's our gadget!  

(And yes, search-by-image works quite well, as does a Lens search.)  

But there's more to this history.  From the same web page: 

"Bump invented and patented other inventions while living in La Crosse, including an air compressor pump, a terminal clamp, a carburetor-adjusting mechanism, a rotary engine and many others. In 1930, Bump changed his company name to the Bump Pump Co., based on his new invention. However, the company was still producing his first patented invention, the paper fastener." 

I have to admit that I was interested in the backstory, so I did the obvious search in newspapers of the day and found this lovely story:  

LaCrosse Tribune, 3 Aug 1930, before the company name change,

I'm not sure I would have called this a "Combination of Romance, Struggle," but things were different back then.  To LaCrosse, this was hot, front-page news!  

SearchResearch Lessons 

Before I get to the lessons I learned, I want to point out that several RegularReaders wrote exemplary SRS discussions and I want to point you to them. 

Art Weiss wrote about his great voyage of discovery (which I thought about using for today's text).  He also taught me about Espacenet, which is a great patent search engine--well worth knowing about. I especially like their advanced patent search UI which is especially easy to use.  

Remmij, as usual, found some intriguing pages, including a site I didn't know about, the Early Office Museum Website, which pointed out that "..[stapleless fasteners] were introduced in 1909 by the Clipless Paper Fastener Co. and in 1910 by Bump’s Perfected Paper Fastener Co. A Clipless Paper Fastener and the Bump Paper Fastener cut and fold small flaps in the papers in a way that locks the papers together.  Bump machines were still marketed in 1950.  Curiously, the model of the Bump Stand Machine that was introduced in 1916 was sold until 1950 with the words "Patent Pending." " 

Mateojose1 did a marvelous job of walking us through their search process with a nice description of side-journeys.  

Ramón points us to this amazing video of an 1870's peeler being restored and used.  Which reminded me to search on YouTube for a Sargent and Foster apple peeler video in use.  

My observations: 

1.  Read carefully.  I know I say this all the time, but when I was initially searching, I misunderstand Calvin Foster's name, thinking that only one person named Foster would be involved in apple peeler patents.  How wrong was I! 

2. OCR is inexact.. especially in older documents (like 19th century patents).  Sometimes you have to "read through" the OCR errors to get to the good stuff. 

3. Don't be afraid to try alternative versions of your query.  Note that when I tried searching on patents for "Apple Parer," it didn't work too well.  But "Apple peeler" did!  

4. Because this is the internet...there's a specialty group for everything.  On a lark, I did a search for just [apple parer] and found the Apple Parer Museum, which has a page just on the Sargent & Foster paring device.  Go figure. 

Search on! 


  1. Thanks for the kind words about my search skills. That said, the search challenges you post are genuinely interesting and pique my curiosity, plus you've made some really good points about web search (both on your blog and in your book), to say nothing of how you've answered questions I've had about web search that I've posted here. So, thanks for the education.