In 1790, Thomas Jefferson handed out the first patent, for a method to make potash, a component of soap. By 1836, the government started numbering patents to keep track of the nation's inventions and innovations.
The pace has accelerated ever since. Today, at a Commerce Department ceremony, the Clinton administration will award the six millionth U.S. patent--to Palm Computing for its HotSync Technology. It allows users of the hand-held Palm electronic devices to swap information with a computer at the single touch of a button.
The economic and societal forces unleashed by the wizards of Silicon Valley and inventors elsewhere across the globe also are helping spur a reinvention at the agency that issues patents. At the center is Q. Todd Dickinson, confirmed last month as commissioner of patents and trademarks.
For starters, Dickinson will have to sort out the first significant revisions to U.S. patent law since 1952, which were tucked inside the huge fiscal 2000 spending agreement reached between Congress and the president.
The law also reorganizes the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to give it more independence over its budget, hiring, compensation and procurement practices, a longtime goal of Vice President Gore's government reform team.
Dickinson said he feels "energized" by the management challenge he faces and the decisions that must be made within the next year as the law's various provisions take effect.
"I get to deal with a lot of issues that are fascinating, that are ones that are right at the core of what I've built a career on. It's a chance to make a difference," he said.
The new law, he said, "reflects the fact that the basis for the economy is shifting from an industrial, mechanistically based economy to an information-based economy, and the way you protect the innovation of the information age is through the intellectual property system."
Twenty-five years ago, Dickinson was a college chemistry major increasingly drawn toward politics as the nation grappled with Vietnam and Watergate. He became interested in attending law school, a decision made easier when "my senior adviser in chemistry said you ought to look at patent law and link these two things up."
There were only six students in Dickinson's patent law class. "It was a pretty obscure field. . . . But with the explosion of intellectual property, the changes in economic development . . . it's amazing that I sort of landed in it," he said.
The new patent law will likely influence much of Dickinson's agenda at PTO. "We have a list as long as my arm of questions that have come out of this legislation," he said. "We've got two major implementation teams going now."
The law, in an attempt to deal with the relatively new concept that business methods, not just inventions, can be patented, establishes a "prior use defense" aimed at protecting companies. It will apply to companies that developed innovative business methods and considered them trade secrets but were not quick to patent them when it became legal to do so.
The bill also requires that patent applications be published in 18 months if they also have been filed abroad and gives third parties more chances to comment when patents are challenged.
Dickinson joined Commerce as a senior adviser in 1997, served as the deputy PTO commissioner and then became acting commissioner early this year when Bruce A. Lehman resigned. Dickinson inherited an operation with a growing workload and personnel problems that included high job turnover rates and keen private-sector competition to recruit employees in biotechnology and other emerging fields.
While awaiting confirmation, Dickinson started trying to ease strained relations that had developed over the years inside and outside PTO.
Small inventors had vigorously opposed the new patent law, arguing that it would make it easier for others to steal their ideas. To reach out to inventors who work for themselves or for small businesses, Dickinson created an Office of Independent Inventor Programs to handle their special needs.
Inside the agency, he moved to end a historically rocky relationship with the union that represents patent examiners. This month, he plans to hold his first labor-management retreat aimed at building "partnership."
But the largest challenge will be keeping PTO up to speed on advances in technology. In fiscal 1999, patent applications increased 12 percent and trademark applications jumped by 25 percent from the previous year.
Said Dickinson: "We're moving as fast as we can."
Q. Todd Dickinson
Title: Assistant secretary of commerce, commissioner of patents and trademarks.
Previous jobs: Deputy commissioner of patents and trademarks; counsel, Dechert Price & Rhoads in Philadelphia, 1995-1997; chief counsel for intellectual property and technology at Sun Co., 1990-1995: counsel to Chevron Corp., 1981-1990.
Education: Bachelor's of science in chemistry, Allegheny College; law degree, University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Hobbies: Reading, softball.