Even at 5,500 Years Old, Every Year It's Something New

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2005

Don't tell Russell Stormer that there is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel. The primary examiner of wheel patent applications for the federal government knows better.

For 23 years, Stormer has pored over drawings and memos from people who claim to have improved upon one of man's most useful and enduring inventions. There is a lot to see, even if new developments are not quite as path-breaking as those of 5,500 years ago, when the wheel was the Internet of the era.

Working out of a cramped 10-by-15-foot office identical to hundreds of others in the vast federal honeycomb that is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Stormer has more work than he can handle. The agency received about 349 wheel and axle patent applications last year. Stormer reviews 124 annually and typically approves patents for about 90. Because it takes an average of two years to process an application, there is always a backlog awaiting evaluation.

"A lot of people will say, 'Haven't wheels already been invented?' " Stormer said during an interview in his office, displaying schematics for one kind of wheel thingamabob or another. Yes, he tells them, but it is constant innovation that has brought the wheel from Mesopotamian chariots to Lance Armstrong's Tour de France-winning bicycles.

Stormer and the other 4,800 examiners at the PTO are key cogs in the U.S. economic machine, because patenting an idea is the first step in trying to turn it into a commercially viable product. Technological progress also depends on the patent system. Would-be innovators routinely dip into the public records for the specifications of patented ideas as they try to figure out ways to improve upon a device.

There is so much work that the thousands of examiners at the agency's new five-building campus near the King Street Metro station cannot keep up. Inventors submitted 390,000 patent applications last year, contributing to a backlog of 600,000 applications that are "sitting on a shelf, waiting to be touched by an examiner," said Brigid Quinn, an agency spokeswoman.

Stormer, 45, a stocky man whose close-cropped brown hair is flecked with gray, has been a patent examiner his entire adult working life. A Pittsburgh native, he joined the patent office in 1982 after earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He had assumed he would land an engineering job in the Midwest's manufacturing industry, but the recession of the early 1980s meant few companies were hiring.

"It's probably not going to sound too good," he said, "but this is the only job offer I had when I graduated."

At first, Stormer examined patent applications for inventions that assist in the dispensing of liquids and other materials, such as the splash-reducers on bottles of olive oil and bleach. In less than a year, he moved to wheels, which became his specialty. When the top examiner for wheels left in 1987, Stormer took over. Though he is assisted by two other examiners, you could say the entire operation revolves around him.

Through the years, Stormer has seen plastic bicycle wheels with as few as three spokes, aluminum car rims made stronger by new welding techniques, and inline skate wheels bearing tiny internal brakes that the wearer activates by tilting her foot to one side.

These days inventors "are using different materials, always trying to make something better," Stormer said. "A lot of times it is something very minor, because wheels have been evolving for so long. Maybe every five or 10 years there is a whole new field or whole new group of wheels.

"In the late 1980s, early 1990s, a lot of bicycle wheels that I saw started to be made out of plastic or fiber-reinforced plastic. They had used plastic in the past, but not in the same way. It was lighter and stronger. With wheels, they're almost always trying to make them lighter -- less materials, it can give you better mileage, better handling on a car, also make them cheaper for manufacturers."

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