IBM Celebrates 100th Anniversary of its First Patent

One hundred years ago today IBM was granted its first patent -- what was it? And how have patents changed (or not) in the last hundred years?  

IBM is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and with it comes a whole host of other notable milestones. One such milestone is today, which marks the 100th anniversary of IBM's first patent.

IBM's first patent was U.S. patent #998,631 and was filed on October 11, 1907 and became a granted patent on July 25th 1911. The patent is for a 'perforating machine', essentially a punch card system used for tabulation. It's an innovation that has a long history of successors all the way up to modern storage age. While the patent system in the U.S. is currently the subject of debate, it is also a system that has worked well for IBM over the last 100 years.

"Patents are a benchmark of innovation, it's not the only benchmark but I'll tell ya it's a heck of a benchmark," IBM Fellow and VP of Innovation, Bernie Meyerson told InternetNews.com. "It forces you to rigorously say that you are doing things that are foundationally different."

IBM is one of the world's leading patent holders with over 150,000 patents. In 2010 IBM received 5,896 U.S. patents. And it all began with that first patent back in 1911.

"The very first patent was the foundation of early automated computing, where the punch card tabulation system is the heart of efficient data processing," Meyerson said. "Although it doesn't seem like mind numbing technology today, the fact of the matter is this was a game changer a hundred years ago."

Meyerson noted that the punch card tabulation machine was used as a critical part of the U.S. Social Security system in the Great Depression. The tabulation machines replaced written ledgers to help track benefit for millions of Americans.

While IBM's original first patent has long since expired, Meyerson said that the notions behind it are still very much alive and patented, 100 years later.

"We know that no one will use boxes of punch cards to track things, that's way in the past, but if you think about it, this is how you store data," Meyerson said. "If you go forward to the 1950's, IBM filed patents for magnetic storage on spinning disks."

Spinning disk storage is the successor to punch cards. It has the same basic idea of storing lots of data and providing access to it.

"The concept of storage, whether it's punch cards from 1911 or the drive storage of the 1950's, has continued to evolve," Meyerson said. "What's astonishing is how hard we've had to work and how many patents we've had to file to enable that evolution."

Meyerson added that IBM is still working on the same issues of innovating storage that started with the first patent in 1911. He noted that on July 19th IBM got a patent for a writing data to phase change material memory, which is a type of solid state flash memory.

That's not to say the punch card tabulation system is considered to be prior art for modern solid state memory. Meyerson noted that though both systems are used for storage, the materials are different. That said, Meyerson said there is prior art on the solid state innovation going back to the 1980's and 1990's.

"The function, that is data storage or write operation, that goes back to the original disk drive patent of the 1950's," Meyerson said.

The process of how patents have been granted over the years hasn't changed all that much either, from IBM's perspective.

"Astonishly it's very similar, you cite the prior art, make sure you're differentiated from it and identify the inventors and the assignee," Meyerson said. "If you take a look at the patents granted last week and the first one we got in 1911, it's interestingly similar."

Moving forward for the next phase of IBM's patents, Meyerson sees more patents around inclusive solutions to problems as opposed to piecemeal innovations. In a way, the next generation of patents could well be all about going back to the future.

"The value of the integrated solution many times exceeds any one thing that you're protecting," Meyerson said. "If you look back, the original 1911 tabulating machine people were already looking at highly integrated devices. And I'll think you'll see that kind of integration as we go forward once again."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.




Tags: IBM, patents


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