Patent Illustration: Fine Art masquerades as Technical Drawing

I don’t need to go into what exactly is a Patent Drawing. There are lots of books on the subject and the USPTO has posted on its site all the rules and parameters that must be followed to avoid objection and rejection of a Patent Illustration. Anyone with the least technical capacity can understand and execute these instructions, but what concerns us here are the finer points that make a Patent Drawing stand out from a shop drawing or a sketch on a napkin or even some of the cruder results of cheap CAD packages that have proliferated in recent years. Sitting at the apex of Computer Aided Design and Drawing software is SolidWorks  and others of its ilk in which a model in true 3D virtual space can be built and rendered to such a degree that it’s as if the thing really does exist—but it really does not except in the mind of the designer and CAD operator. This is truly a fantastic accomplishment: anything the mind can conceive can be rendered as if a photograph was taken of a manufactured object, but the more fantastic part is that it will not pass muster as a Patent Drawing.

Back in 1980 my son was born, and I was working for Simer Pump Company then located in Fridley, Minnesota, a suburb north of Minneapolis. My career up to that point had been in civil engineering with a smattering of mechanical, but mostly I led survey crews in the field and drew up the field notes by hand. It is easy to forget that the first really viable desktop computers did not even come into existence until the mid-1980s. And at Simer I was head draftsman in charge of producing and archiving drawings on vellum that were used to produce blue-line copies accompanied by that awful ammonia smell familiar to anyone in technical disciplines before the 80s. At Simer was John Gondek, a distinguished elderly inventor (who did not care that he ought to already be retired) to whom belonged an office space in which to work out the finer aspects of pump design and mass production of same. I think he just really wanted to tinker and do something unlike most Old Folks, and the management had plenty reason to believe it was worth whatever paltry assets they might expend on his projects. We became friendly as we worked together doing performance tests on designs in the lab and generally bouncing ideas back and forth about how we might best accomplish this or that. He did most of the bouncing off my comically quizzical face.

I knew that Patents did exist, but that’s about all I knew until John introduced me to the rogue’s gallery of his framed patents lining his office wall, the most impressive of which to me at the time was the torpedo launcher used on submarines in WWII. This really blew my mind, and once I understood what a Patent was and what it meant I was further introduced to Patent Illustration by him because “son, you’re pretty good; I think you could do Patent Drafting”. I had never heard of such a thing, but John introduced me to his attorney who loaned me a book published in 1904 containing Every Thing One Needed to Know about Patent Drawings which I devoured and after my first three cases also from the same attorney, I was on my way. Within 6 months I had developed a clientele in Minneapolis and made more money part time than at my hourly job, and the rest, they say, is history.

The foregoing is illustrative to my point that Patent Illustration has always been, from the beginning, an art form more than a transmission of technical information used to produce an item for sale. It has always been about protecting a concept, an ideal, an archetype, and is therefore free of many of the rules to which shop drawings must adhere. There are no dimensions given or allowed unless they are specifically inventive by definition and are intended to be claimed. Look at any Patent Drawing and you will see a line drawing with various degrees of shading applied with a Figure number and many reference numbers pointing to aspects of the invention, and that’s it. Nothing specific will confuse the transmission of the general concept which is all that matters. Look at any Very Olde Patent Drawing and you will see a dedication to Art Itself and a rendering accomplished solely by the application of India Ink to a sheet of white card stock and no other method employed or allowed. That was my introduction to Patent Illustration, and I took it very seriously and essayed to imitate the Masters of the Craft insofar as I was able.