Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story said Mr. Wise graduated from the University of Michigan. That was not correct. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin. This version has been corrected.

Glenn E. Wise; Inventor, Patent Searcher

Glenn E. Wise was an inventor who knew his way around the labyrinthine files of the old Patent and Trademark Office.
Glenn E. Wise was an inventor who knew his way around the labyrinthine files of the old Patent and Trademark Office. (Family Photo)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008; 1:21 PM

Glenn E. Wise, 79, who died Feb. 4 at his home in McLean of complications of pulmonary fibrosis, could never let well enough alone. A bird at its feeder, a woman wearing a hat, a person who, like Mr. Wise himself, had breathing difficulties: All were likely to be targets of his incessant urge to tinker, to innovate, to improve.

Mr. Wise was a registered patent agent, an inventor and a recipient of 15 patents. His creations included a more functional wheelbarrow, a bird feeder with seed-carrying tape, an improved toilet cabinet, a "closure, stirrer and condiment holder for drinking vessel," a sectional handbag and an easily storable movie projection screen.

He was rarely the inventor of the original object, but, as daughter Joan Wise said, "He would see something and say, 'How can we improve that?' "

Almost as eccentric as the "mad inventor" stereotype, possessed of a quirky sense of humor, Mr. Wise was "probably the most quietly self-confident person I ever met," his daughter said.

Growing up in the small town of Lanark, Ill., he was constantly dragging home junk he found alongside the railroad tracks behind his house and trying to create something. He also worked part-time at a cannery and often tinkered with improvements to the machinery.

He invented a rotating refrigerator shelf as a teenager and wrote to an invention firm advertised on the back of Popular Mechanics to inquire about a patent for his handy Lazy Susan innovation. "They wrote me back with four or five patents on the same idea," he told The Washington Post in 1994.

Years later, he was the man writing back to budding Wises, Bells or Edisons. As a patent searcher, he spent almost half a century combing the records of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, then in Crystal City, to determine whether an invention had already been patented. (He told The Post in 1994 that he had done at least 20 searches for would-be inventors of rotating refrigerator shelves.)

He began his work as a patent searcher in 1960, at a time when miniature towers of records at the patent office lined rows of worn wooden tables dating to the 1930s. The stacks held 21 miles of shelving, with about 65,000 new pages of documents added each week to the estimated 250 million pages already on file.

Aspiring inventors hired Mr. Wise and his cohorts because of their mastery of the patent office's arcane classification system. During Mr. Wise's time at the patent office, a competent and accurate patent search could be completed only by an expert searcher, one who not only was intimately familiar with the Byzantine geography of the stacks but also was physically touching paper at the Crystal City office. Mr. Wise was considered the dean of the searchers.

The records since have been computerized, and the office has moved to Alexandria.

Occasionally sporting a tie festooned with the chemical equations for urea and acetic acid ("piss and vinegar," he reminded The Post), Mr. Wise was part of a small subset of professional searchers who were themselves inventors. Most searchers were proud to be anti-inventors. "You invent it, we prevent it," one of his colleagues told The Post in 1994.

Mr. Wise was born in Freeport, Ill., and received a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in "light building industries." He was an Air Force officer from 1951 to 1954 and then worked briefly for Boeing. He also designed several private residences in Wisconsin and Illinois, while he was living alone in a small inventor's studio in the small town of Mayville, Wis. He got to meet one of his heroes, the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But when none of the ideas hatched in Wisconsin caught on big, Mr. Wise and his wife moved to the Washington area in 1956.

Nine years later, they moved to a house in McLean. Friends told them anyone would have to be crazy to live there, so the Wises affectionately christened the place "Funny Farm." The house had been built in haphazard segments over the years, beginning in the 1920s. True to his nature, Mr. Wise couldn't stop tinkering with it. His wife eventually threw up her hands at the frequent redesign disarray and moved to her own house a few doors down. "She came over a lot," Joan Wise said.

Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Phyllis K. Wise of McLean; and his daughter, of Arlington.

Mr. Wise worked briefly as an examiner in the Patent and Trademark Office before going into private practice as a registered patent agent. He represented both corporate clients and individual inventors.

He also worked as an advocate for free, public access to patent materials and research facilities. He testified at Patent and Trademark Office hearings and led patent user and study groups.

His retirement in 2004 gave him more time to indulge his enthusiasm for water-color painting, pottery making, metal- and woodworking, sculpting, playing the piano and singing. For friends and relatives, he built birdhouses out of recycled fence boards. He also enjoyed fishing and gardening.

He continued to invent and focused in his final years on devices for those with breathing-related illnesses. Patents are pending.

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