What living person holds the most U.S. patents? In this era of information and lightning searches – when patents are both more valuable than ever and a source of raging controversy – you’d think such a simple question would be easy to answer. You’d think somebody could push a button and get a list. But, uh, no.
America cannot identify its most prolific living inventors. We can’t single out these people who should be considered national treasures.
I found this out because I wanted to interview the top 10 living patent holders for a story. I got in touch with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and asked for a list, thinking it was about the same as calling Billboard and asking for the top 10 songs.
As it turns out, the USPTO has but one guy who does statistical studies of the agency’s 7 million-patent database. He last sorted for individual inventors in 1997, and has since been too busy with other projects to update that list.
I asked for help from a few commercial companies that do patent database searches. Thomson gave it a college try and for a while had a team working on my question. Others just said it couldn’t be done. The question, with variables including inventors with same last names and multiple names on patents, is apparently a database operator’s nightmare.
"The last five years include some 1 million granted U.S. patents," Thomson’s Ryan Sheppard e-mailed me, explaining why Thomson couldn’t pull it off, either. "Ten years of data would be roughly double that. So we are talking astonishingly large numbers of documents."
Anyone can go to the USPTO’s website, type in an individual’s name, and get a list of all the patents granted that person. But you have to start with a name. You can’t set up an open-ended search that finds the names that appear most often. There’s no easy way to let the database generate a list of top inventors.
Since the question can’t be officially answered, I thought I’d hack at it in other ways. It’s possible to use a variety of resources to tease out a few names who would likely make the top 10 list of living inventors. And that leads to some pretty wild surprises.
For more than 50 years, Thomas Edison has been considered the nation’s all-time most prolific inventor. He has 1,093 patents to his name, including the electric light bulb and phonograph. He is to American innovation what Thomas Jefferson is to American politics.
However, Edison is apparently NOT the top American inventor. He has been bested by Donald Weder of Highland, Ill. – a man who, in contrast to the stupendous impact of Edison, has mostly used his inventive powers to give the world better floral arrangements.
This is as deflating as finding out that Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak has been surpassed by a stadium peanut vendor.
Weder, who is still alive and whose family runs floral packaging company Highland Supply, has his name on 1,321 patents. Almost all have to do with items you’d find at a florist. Weder’s most recent patent – No. 6,962,021, granted Nov. 8 – is for a sleeve for holding a group of flowers. Before that, on Oct. 11, Weder was issued a patent titled, "Method of covering a flower pot." On Sept. 20, he was issued a patent titled, "Method of covering a flower pot or floral grouping."
Much of Weder’s list goes on in a similar fashion. (Weder didn’t return phone messages.)
Aside from Weder, who else would make the list of most prolific living inventors?
While the patent office doesn’t keep a list of top individual inventors, it does track which companies get the most patents. For the past decade, IBM has been first on that list every year. I figured the top patent holder at the top patent-holding company would be a good bet.
Ravi Arimilli is IBM’s top patent holder, with more than 300 patents. He’s a researcher, based in Austin, who specializes in computer chip innards. Arimilli’s most recent patent, issued Nov. 29, is for "Layered local cache with lower level cache optimizing allocation mechanism." He must be great at cocktail parties.
In 2002 alone, Arimilli won 78 patents. That’s three patents every two weeks. Either he’s a wonder-dude who makes the rest of us look like slugs, or his name winds up on a lot of work done by teams of people.
Either way, at only 42, he’ll probably continue to climb up the patent-holding ranks.
In the search for prolific inventors, here’s the biggest shock: The all-time champion of U.S. patents might be a foreigner.
When the USPTO made that 1997 list of living prolific inventors, the No. 1 patent holder was Shunpei Yamazaki. Most of his work involves computer and video screens for his Tokyo company, Semiconductor Energy Laboratory. As of 1997, Yamazaki held 372 patents.
Today, a search of the USPTO database turns up 1,432 patents bearing his name, whupping both Edison and Weder. Yamazaki’s most recent patent, granted Nov. 22, was titled, "Reflective liquid crystal display panel and device using same." His first patent, for a computer chip design, was granted in 1980. Yamazaki has averaged about a patent a week for 25 years.
It doesn’t seem unusual to have a foreigner holding so many patents. Of the top 10 living patent holders on the 1997 list, eight were from other countries. Six were Germans, and two were Japanese. The only two Americans were flower guy Weder and oil industry researcher Hartley Owen.
So much for the legend of Edison. America’s greatest inventor is apparently an obscure guy in Japan who makes stuff most people can’t comprehend. And the nation’s greatest native inventor seems to be a man who has come up with 100 different ways to make a flower pot.