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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."

Rummaging through the agency's patent files recently, he unearthed images from more than a century's worth of wheel innovations. There were the early automobiles' solid rubber tires buffered by metal springs rather than compressed air to cushion the ride. There was the 1943 design for a wheel whose tire was made of rope rather than rubber, a commodity in short supply during World War II. More recent were applications seeking to capitalize on the current fad of "spinners," the eye-catching wheel adornments that continue spinning even when the car stops.

Stormer, his white shirt sleeves rolled midway up his forearms, reached into a pile of papers to retrieve one of his recent favorites, a patent application for a car wheel featuring a working clock affixed to where the hub cap normally is. As the wheel rotates, the clock remains upright, providing a glimpse of the time to curious onlookers but not, presumably, to the driver.

"It's a novelty," Stormer said. "Nowadays, everyone tries to be different. They have different colored wheels, different colored windshield wipers. This would be a way for someone to stand out on the street."

Quinn, the spokeswoman, witnessed the display and began to harrumph in exasperation. A devilish "Who me?" grin spread across Stormer's boyish face.

"I think we might move on from that," Quinn said, half-laughing but a bit worried that the novelty clock might trivialize the work of the agency. "Do we have another example? What is the utility of a clock on a wheel? We are going to get a million letters."

The rather bland names for Stormer's professional stomping grounds are "Class 295" and "Class 301," bureaucratic categories covering wheels and axles for bicycles, skates, cars, trucks and trains. It is Stormer's job to determine whether wheel developments in these areas are new, useful and not obvious, and most importantly whether they contain a feature not found in any previous patents, known in the trade as "prior art."

That's no small feat. More than 30,000 wheel patents have been issued since 1790. Stormer figures he searches 500 to 1,500 of them in reviewing each new application. The applications are quite detailed, each including drawings, specifications, a description of the invention, an explanation of previous wheels like it and a summary of how the inventor overcame obstacles that his predecessors could not.

"It can be pretty stressful," Stormer said. "With all of the experience in wheels, I can sometimes look at something and I either know of a reference or patent out there like it, or I can look at it and say, 'that's going to be hard to find.' I think that's very helpful. That's why most examiners stay in the art they are in for their whole career. . . . I'm almost my own little patent office."

Although thousands of examiners work at the patent office, most labor alone. Some crave the solitude even in their downtime, posting signs on their closed office doors with messages such as, "Lunch -- Do Not Disturb."

The crush of the workload gives the patent office the air -- and pressure -- of an assembly line, but it also amounts to a full-employment guarantee for people such as Stormer. There is enough work to keep him busy for the next 17 years, which is how long Stormer says he intends to stick around.

Along the way, Stormer no doubt will hear countless more times the refrain that someone confronting a problem "doesn't need to reinvent the wheel," meaning they need not labor for a novel solution when a perfectly good one exists already.

Stormer's reaction whenever he hears it?

"It reminds me of work," he said.

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