Five Business Lessons I’ve Learned from Reading Hundreds of Old Patents

J. Matt Buchanan
Jun 18 · 9 min read

The stories of the inventors, their companies, and their businesses reveal lessons that are still relevant today.

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

I’ve been reading really old patents for decades now. I know it sounds like some some sort of bizarre punishment, but I assure you it’s not. I do it for fun. Really.

These old patents—usually from the 1900s, 1880s, and even earlier— fascinate me because they allow me to appreciate the giant leaps made in particular technologies, between then and now. Recent patents—those granted in the last decade or so—are a great tool for gaining a sense of the incremental change that is currently happening at the edge of a particular technology. The truly old stuff, though, reveals the revolutionary changes we’ve gone through over the last century plus.

At some point, I started looking beyond the technology described in these old patents and began researching the inventors, their companies, and their businesses. This is when I realized that the educational value of these old patents goes beyond the technology. By looking past the content of the patents and into the stories behind them, I discovered practical lessons that translate quite well to the business world of today.

I’ve been reading and researching old patents ever since, and documenting the lessons as I go. I’ve probably read and researched hundreds by now, and have distilled dozens of valuable business lessons from the effort.

Here are five of my favorites.

Many inventors make the mistake of believing that their superior technology guarantees business success. Apart from the difficulty of assessing your own invention in a truly objective manner, this is dangerous thinking because it fails to account for so many critical factors that, in combination with the technology, ultimately determine the success of a product.

Simply put, no matter how superior your technology is over that of relevant existing products, it cannot, on its own, guarantee the success of your product or business.

An old patent for a safety pin is a favorite example of mine for this lesson.

Christian Andresen didn’t invent the safety pin — that title belongs to Walter Hunt of New York (see U.S. Patent No. 6,281 issued in 1849). No, Andresen simply improved upon existing pins by adding an effective locking feature to enhance its safety. His patent, U.S. Patent 759,845, issued in 1904.

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Figures 1 and 2 from U.S. Patent No. 759,845, issued to Christian Andresen in 1904

Andresen’s contribution to the field is so significant that, I believe, his locking design is the very image most people see in their mind when they visualize a safety pin. Go ahead…think of a safety pin. Chances are your mental image bears a strong resemblance to the figures above from Andresen’s patent.

Despite his significent technical advance, though, Andresen’s business struggled. His company, The Lock Safety Pin Company, faced trademark and other lawsuits and quickly fell into bankruptcy. The superior technology of his safety pin didn’t save the company. Ultimately, Detroit-based National Pin Company purchased its assets under foreclosure in 1910, less than a decade after Andresen filed his first pin-related patent application.

Andresen’s business failed and is now largely ignored by history, even though his invention became the standard in the field. A great invention is…great. But, it’s no guarantee.

In business, the search for opportunity is never ending. Leaders are constantly looking for the next opportunity for growth. Unfortunately, many businesses narrow their field of view and only look for opportunity in the tried and true channels that have produced opportunity for the organization in the past.

This narrow focus ignores the reality that, no matter the business or industry you’re in, opportunity can truly come from anywhere…and can present itself at any time. If you’re only scanning those defined channels for new opportunities, and you prepare to seize opportunity only when those channels tell you to do so, you’re likely missing out.

The story behind U.S. Patent No. 852,230, which issued in 1907, illustrates this point.

Julius Kahn, a civil engineer educated at the University of Michigan, invented a reinforced concrete that was stronger, lighter, and cheaper than existing technology. Kahn’s invention used a series of wings on steel beams to distribute the tension and improve the overall strength of the concrete and structures built with it.

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Figure from U.S. Patent No. 852,230, issued to Julius Kahn in 1907

Kahn founded the Trussed Concrete Steel Company in Detroit in 1903. His inventions were well received and his business had near immediate success. The company grew quickly as demand for concrete construction grew. Within a couple years the company announced plans for a new manufacturing plant in Youngstown, Ohio and new headquarters in Detroit—the latter would become the first office building in that city to be built from concrete.

Then catastrophe struck…and presented a significant opportunity to Kahn.

The great earthquake leveled San Francisco in 1906, killing more than 3,000 people and destroying more than 80% of the city. The quake created opportunity for Kahn and his company, though, as San Francisco set out to rebuild. In the aftermath of the destruction, people quickly noticed that many of the buildings left standing were those built with the Kahn System.

Kahn leveraged this opportunity and grew both his business and his reputation in the process. He hadn’t designed his system specifically for earthquakes, but he recognized the opportunity when it revealed itself. Indeed, many plans for buildings being constructed in the wake of the great earthquake specified the use of Kahn’s products and engineering services.

You just don’t know where the next opportunity will arise, so you’ve got to be ready for it to come from anywhere at any time.

Launching a product can seem like the end of the innovation process, but, in one sense, it’s another beginning. After launch, great innovators listen to their users to identify challenges they didn’t anticipate during the development process.

For me, there is no better example of this than the simple tire gauge. This innovation has an incredible history—individual inventor, licensing, infringement suits, and deep sea diving equipment! It’s an effective example because so many people have used modern versions of the device, which incorporate a simple improvement made by the inventor a few years after launching the original.

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Figure 1 from U.S. Patent No. 927,298, issued to Charles Twitchell in 1908

Charles Twitchell’s original pressure gauge, reflected in U.S. Patent No. 927,298, issued in 1908, was well-received. But, users complained that the pressure indicator withdrew back into the housing as soon as they removed it from the valve stem. This behavior made Twitchell’s gauge less than ideal for low light situations like the side of a road at night in 1910. It also made his gauge difficult to use when the car stopped in a position that placed the valve stem at the top of the wheel, away from the ground. Finding themself in this situation, a user would invariably try to use the gauge upside down, only to watch as the pressure indicator slid back into the housing before they noted the pressure reading. Some users reported this to Twitchell, claiming that it forced them to carefully rotate the tire just enough to place the valve stem near the ground so that they could use the gauge without issue.

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Figures 1–3 from U.S. Patent No. 1,048,237, issued to Charles Twitchell in 1912

Twitchell received this feedback and used it to guide his improvements on his invention. Ultimately, he incorporated a feature to maintain the indicator at the correct reading even after the gauge was removed from the stem. The new retention feature worked in any orientation, too, eliminating the upside-down problem.

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1913 Advertisement for Charles Twitchell’s improved Tire Gauge

Sound familiar?

It should…if you’ve used a standard tire gauge at any point during the last century. The modern tire gauge tucked in the shirt pocket of every auto mechanic still works this way, thankfully. This improvement is reflected in U.S. Patent No. 1,048,237, which issued to Twitchell in 1912.

Had he not listed to the feedback of his users, Twitchell might never have developed that second tire gauge, leaving the opportunity to address the challenges experienced by his users to someone else.

Have you ever heard of a Potter Bed?

Neither have I.

The Murphy Bed, though…that’s a different story.

Somewhere along the way, the Murphy name nearly became synonymous with folding beds. Indeed, I bet a quick glance at a drawing from Frank Potter’s U.S. Patent 451,842, which issued in 1891, brings the Murphy name to your mind. Certainly it doesn’t have you thinking of a Potter bed.

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Figure III from U.S. Patent No. 451,842, which issued to Frank Potter in 1891

Potter actually preceded Murphy by several years. Indeed, Frank Potter was one of several inventors that had filed for patent protection on folding beds years before William Murphy had filed his first application. Several companies even manufactured the beds before Murphy arrived, including at least four located in “Furniture City” — Grand Rapids, MI. The Sears catalog even listed folding beds for sale before Murphy’s time.

Yet, somehow over the years, the Murphy Bed established itself as the defining product and brand in the space. A cursory review of the history of the technology suggests some companies focused on aspects that lead to roll-away and sleeper sofa beds, while others, including The Murphy Wall Bed Company (and The Murphy Door Bed Co.), focused on features behind true pull-down beds, now known, generically, as Murphy beds.

Manufacturers dropped out of the space over the years, and Murphy gradually became the category-defining brand. The strength of the brand delivered value for the company for decades, long after expiration of Murphy’s original patents. Unfortunately, the brand became generic in the 1980s.

Patent protection is temporary, but brand protection can last…forever, with proper care. The Murphy bed is a great reminder to keep both in their proper place.

An inventor friend of mine once told me that the simplest solution to a problem is often the most difficult to identify because, as humans, we tend to over complicate things.

The story behind George Soule of Vermont is a great reminder that simple solutions, if you’re smart enough to find them, can be the basis for a strong business. Soule built a syrup empire and a fortune based on his ability to identify elegant, simple solutions to real problems in the industry. If a nickname is any indication of success, Soule’s leaves no doubt about his achievements — he was know as “The Maple Sugar King.”

Soule’s U.S. Patent No. 1,061,135 is a great example of his simple and effective solutions to practical problems. With 7–8,000 maple sugar taps, the Soule farm was one of the largest in New England in the early 1900s. Imagine collecting syrup from that many taps! Existing collection systems required lifting a bucket from its spout, moving it away from the tree a bit, pouring the syrup out of the bucket, and then rehanging the bucket on the spout. Multiply that routine by 7–8,000 and you immediately see the challenge.

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Figures 2–4 from U.S. Patent No. 1,061, 135, issued to George Soule in 1913

Soule’s simple invention eliminated steps to increase efficiency. His invention really boils down to this — an added cover with a hook. The cover is “rotatively mounted on said spout,” which permits rotation of the cover and bucket to empty collected syrup without having to remove the bucket from the spout. No more lifting! The rotatable connection maintains proper spout position within the tree.

Soule was smart enough to identify a simple and elegant solution, which undoubtedly provided a significant increase in the efficiency of collection efforts on his farm. Surely this helped him on his way to becoming The Maple Sugar King.

When looking to improve on a product or a process, it’s natural to seek, or at least end up with, a relatively complicated solution. Learning to seek simpler solutions can help you invent things that others overlook, which can ultimately spell opportunity for your business.

Old patents provide a treasure trove of historical context for technology. Looking beyond the technology they describe — to the inventors, their companies, and their businesses — has revealed an entire new layer of knowledge that can be gleaned from these documents. Their stories are full of valuable business lessons that are still relevant today.

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