U.S. looks back, forward with impending historic patent; the length of time between millionth patent milestones has been shorter on every successive occasion.

The United States of America was 14 years old. As with any adolescent, there were growing pains, much to learn, and monumental decisions ahead.

1790 America was an economic mess. Causes included a long and expensive Revolutionary War; irresponsible state governments that sapped the wealth of private creditors and had sparked calls to reform the Articles of Confederation; and trade arrangements with other countries that showed the United States to be heavy on imports and light on exports.

That last factor was of particular concern to George Washington, sworn in as the country’s first president a year earlier. The United States had gained independence, but often it didn’t seem like it. Washington worried about an America that was too reliant on European imports.

The president felt strongly that promoting the fledgling country’s sense of innovation was paramount in strengthening its own economy. Although individual states had established certain patent systems, Washington pushed Congress hard to pass legislation—the Patent Act of 1790—that would standardize the patent process while recognizing and promoting individuals’ patent rights.

He signed the bill on April 10, laying the foundation for the modern American patent system. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson unofficially became America’s first patent examiner.

By the 1900s, the United States had become the world’s dominant economy; by the 1950s, about half of the world’s gross domestic product was being created in America. Many factors played a role in both, but the U.S. patent system was an undeniable gearwheel.

A rolling avalanche

Predictably, the patent system has had its highs and lows in the ensuing 228 years. But despite some trying times—including in recent years—the flow of patent applications to the United States Patent and Trademark Office keeps spiraling. When the 10 millionth U.S. utility patent is issued, likely in June, it will occur a little more than three years after the 9 millonth was issued. It took 121 years for the United States to reach 1 million patents. (The current numbering system did not begin until 1836. An extra 9,500 patents issued between 1790 and 1836.)

Among other things, the historic occasion is a monument to American ingenuity, humans’ desire to enhance and extend quality of life, the centuries-long impact of the patent office, and Washington’s prescient faith in our ability to make it all work. USPTO Director Andrei Iancu touched on much of this, directly and indirectly, in an address this March.

“It is no accident that all this fantastic innovation, continuously flowing since the founding of our republic, happens here in the United States, where patent rights are written into our Constitution with the explicit goal of promoting human progress.

“With American patents, humans made light, began to fly, enabled instant communication, treated disease and disabilities, and generally, as was said by Thomas Edison, pushed the ‘whole world ahead in its march to the highest civilization.’”

When will it be?

The USPTO has said the 10 millionth patent will issue in summer 2018. Outside observers have narrowed that timeframe considerably.

Noting that the USPTO only issues patents on Tuesdays—and that it currently grants more than 24,000 patents per month—some legal blogs have identified June 19 or 26 as the likely date of the eight-digit milestone.

The staff at IPWatchdog has turned the anticipation into a science. In a May 8 post, the website broke down patent grants into weeks (averaging 5,920 since January this year) in arriving at a June 19 forecast. It also predicted that the historic patent will go to an American company or individual and that it will relate to communications technology—neither of which would be unexpected.

Gene Quinn, a patent attorney and the founder of IPWatchdog who is a regular Inventors Digest contributor, commented on the milestone in the context of some court rulings that have been viewed as setbacks to patent holders in the past several years—as well as Iancu’s recent commitment to review proceedings at the embattled Patent Trial and Appeal Board.

“The good news is, patents are issuing,” he said. “The question one has to wonder about is, how quickly could the U.S. have reached 10 million had it not been for a series of self-inflicted wounds? … But optimism is high, and hope is real. People really believe that Director Iancu is about to bring meaningful reforms.”