The Professional Approach

by Charles L. Harness and Theodore Lockhard Thomas

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The trials of a patent lawyer are usually highly technical tribulations--and among the greatest is the fact that Inventors are only slightly less predictable than their Inventions!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“Sometimes,” said Helix Spardleton, Esquire, “a patent case gets away from you. As the attorney in the case, you never quite see it the same as everybody else. You stand isolated and alone, unable to persuade the Patent Examiners, the Board, the courts, possibly even the inventor, to accept your view of the case. Nothing you do or say matches anyone else’s thinking, and you begin to wonder what’s the matter with everyone.”

I nodded. This was my favorite time of day. It was early evening in Washington, D.C., and my boss, Helix Spardleton, patent attorney extraordinary, was relaxing. His feet were up on one corner of his desk, his cigar was in the Contemplation Position, and the smoke curled slowly toward the ceiling. His office was a good room in which to relax. It was filled with fine, old well-scratched furniture, and the walls were lined with books, and there was the comfortable picture of Justice Holmes on the wall looking down with rare approval on what he saw. Susan, our secretary, had made the last coffee of the day, and had kicked off her shoes the better to enjoy it. The three of us just sat in the deepening dusk, and talked. We didn’t even turn on a light. It was a shame I wasn’t paying close attention to Mr. Spardleton.

I said, “Yes, I know what you mean about other people’s not seeing things the same way you do. I’ve seen something like it at work with some of my friends just before they get married. They think their brides are just about the most beautiful women in the world, when they are really quite homely--wouldn’t even hold a candle to our Susan here.”

Mr. Spardleton looked at me and then at Susan, and Susan looked at him and then at me in that sober wide-eyed way she has, and then they looked at each other and smiled. I guess they realized that I had said something pretty funny.

Mr. Spardleton said, “I understand why you think of the situation in terms of brides, but I always think of it in terms of a proud father who sees nothing but perfection in his newborn son.”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s a good way to put it, too.”

“There are,” he continued through a cloud of gentle smoke, “two different ways in which a patent case can get away from the attorney. The first doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it has a tendency to set the world on fire. That’s the case that has true merit to it--high invention, if you will--but the invention is so subtle that nobody can see its importance. Only the attorney who wraps the case around his heart can appreciate its vast potential. He goes through the prosecution before the Patent Office and possibly before the courts shouting high praises of the invention, but all the tribunals turn a deaf ear. Sometimes the attorney finally reaches Nirvana; the invention comes into its own. It shakes the world, just as the attorney had always known it would.”

I nodded and said, “Elias Howe and his sewing machine, McCormick and his reaper, Colt and his pistol.” Mr. Spardleton had taught me well.

“The other way is more common,” he continued. “There the attorney never sees the case in its true light. He is blinded by something in it and thinks it is greater than it is. He wastes a lot of time trying to persuade everybody that this very ordinary invention is the wonder of the decade. He thinks of the invention the way a father does of a wayward son--he sees none of its faults, only its virtues, and he magnifies those.”

I shifted into a more comfortable position in my deep chair. Mr. Spardleton must have thought I was going to say something. He looked at me and added hastily, “Or rather, as you’d have it, the way a bridegroom looks at his prospective bride. That better?”

“Oh yes. Those fellows are really blinded. They just can’t see anything the way it really is.”

Mr. Spardleton said, “Most patent attorneys are unable to tell the difference between the two ways a case can get away from them, once they get caught in it. They always think that nobody else agrees with them because nobody else understands the case. It is quite a blow when it turns out that they are the one who has been wrong all along. Yes, sometimes an understanding of the facts is as difficult as an understanding of the law.”

“Yes,” I said sleepily. “Sure must be.”

If I had known better that evening, I would never have allowed myself to get so sleepy. I should have listened for the meaning in Mr. Spardleton’s words instead of merely listening to the words themselves. I have seen Patent Examiners act that way--they hear the words, but the meaning does not come through. We locked the doors and went home, then. How I wish I had listened!

Dr. Nathaniel Marchare is unquestionably the greatest organic chemist the world has seen since Emil Fischer. His laboratories in Alexandria, Virginia, constantly pour out a host of exceedingly important inventions. The chemists, physicists, physical chemists, and biologists who work under him are all dedicated men and women, gifted with that scientific insight that so often produces simple solutions to great problems. Dr. Marchare and his people are the principal clients of the firm of Helix Spardleton, Patent Attorney, and as such they are very important to me. Nevertheless, I always get a queasy feeling in my stomach when Dr. Marchare excitedly calls up Mr. Spardleton, and Mr. Spardleton turns him over to me.

Dr. Marchare is a very nice person, not at all mad as people are prone to say. He is tall and gaunt and slightly wall-eyed, and he seems to live in a great, flopping laboratory smock, and his hair is always wild, and he seems to look around you rather than at you, but he is a very nice person and not at all mad. His main trouble is he does not understand the workings of the United States Patent System. After I have explained to him the operation of the Patent Law on some particular situation, Dr. Marchare frequently begins to mutter to himself as if I were no longer in the same room with him, and I find this most discouraging. As if this were not bad enough, many of Dr. Marchare’s scientists have acquired the same habit.

It was a bright fall morning when this particular call came through. I hadn’t heard the phone ring, nor did I hear Mr. Spardleton answer it in response to Susan’s buzz. But some sixth sense brought me upright in my chair when I heard Mr. Spardleton say, “Well, how are things out in the Washington suburbs this morning?”

I felt the hairs tingle at the base of my neck, and I knew that Mr. Spardleton was talking to Dr. Marchare. I heard, “Certainly, why don’t I send Mr. Saddle out. He’s worked with Callahan before--on that Pigeon Scarer Case, as I recall--and the two of them can decide what to do. That sound all right?”

I am afraid it sounded all right, because there was some chitchat and then the sound of the phone’s banging into its cradle, and Mr. Spardleton’s booming voice, “Oh, Mr. Saddle. Will you come in here a moment, please?”

I took a quick swallow of milk of magnesia, an excellent antacid, and went in. Mr. Spardleton was busy so he came right to the point. “They’ve got some kind of problem out at the Marchare Laboratory--don’t know whether to file a patent application right now, or wait until the invention is more fully developed. Will you hop out there and get them straightened out? Callahan is the chemist, and you know him pretty well.”

I certainly did. Callahan’s name always reminded me of the time I took testimony in Sing Sing Prison on a Callahan application in Interference. But I nodded numbly and went back to my office and finished the bottle of milk of magnesia and caught a cab to the Marchare Laboratory.

It was cool in the lab and the air smelled faintly of solvents. I liked the smell, and I sniffed it deeply and tried to distinguish one from the other. My chemistry professor had often told me that I had the best nose he had run across in twenty-five years of teaching. I picked out the pungent, aromatic odor of toluene and the hospital smell of diethyl ether, and I thought I could detect the heavy odor of lauryl alcohol. Underneath them all was a rich, sweet smell that I had smelled before, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I decided it was a lactone, and let it go at that. I nodded as I went past the receptionist, and her smile made me feel uncomfortable again, just as it always did; there was too much of a leer in it. I never stopped to tell her where I was going; I just went in unannounced.

I went up the stairs and down the hall to Callahan’s lab, next to Dr. Marchare’s. I went in. Henry Callahan stood at a bench pouring a colorless liquid down a chromatographic column. He looked over at me and said, “Well, Carl Saddle. How are you, man? Nice to see you.”

Callahan was a big man, heavy-set, with bright blue eyes, and a shock of light-brown hair. For all his bulk he moved lightly as befitted a former stroke on the Penn crew. I was fond of Callahan, even with all the trouble his inventions caused me; I knew he couldn’t help it. I said, “Hello Henry. How have you been?” And we exchanged some more amenities.

Finally he said, “Carl, we have quite a problem here, and we don’t know what to do about it. Here’s the situation.”

I swallowed, and took out my notebook and pencil, and laid my pocket slide rule in front of me. I always put the slide rule out where the inventor can see it to remind him that he is talking to another technical man, not just a lawyer. This helps make him stick to the facts. I didn’t need the rule with Callahan, but habit is hard to break.

Callahan said, “Some time ago I made a polyester, used adipic acid and an amino alcohol. On a hunch I dropped in an aluminum alkyl, and then pushed the polymerization along with both ultraviolet and heat. Got a stiff gel out of the pot and drew it into a quarter of a pound of fibers. I only had time to determine that the fibers were amorphous--no time to draw them further to see if they would develop crystallinity. I put them in an open-mouth jar which I later found had been used to store mercury. One evening I took them out and found they had developed crystallinity on standing. Furthermore, the fibrous ends had split, and the split ends seemed to be tacky--seemed a natural to me to make a sheet of paper out of it.”

I nodded as I worked furiously on my notes. All of Marchare’s people talked that way. They did the most fantastic things sometimes, and then talked about them as if anyone would have done the same thing. I had complained about this oddity to Mr. Spardleton when I first came to work for him; I was used to inventions that were made in understandable ways. He had smiled and asked me to quote the last sentence of 35 U.S.C. 103, the statute that set forth the conditions for patentability. It was a good thing I had memorized the statute. I recited the last sentence, “Patentability shall not be negatived by the manner in which the invention is made.” Well, here it was again.

I asked Callahan, “Did you make a sheet of paper out of it?”

“Sure did. Made a hand sheet in a twelve-by-twelve inch mold. Pressed it out, dried it, then got busy again so I couldn’t test it for a week. When I did I started working nights to see if I could duplicate my results. Just finished this morning. Here’s the hand sheet, the second one.”

He handed me a sheet of paper, snow-white in color. I put aside my pencil and notebook to examine it. As I took it in my hand it was obvious that it was something unusual. It was softer than a cleansing tissue, and probably even more flexible. I rubbed it between my fingers, and it had the most remarkable feel of any paper I had ever felt--soft and clinging and cool, and exceedingly pleasant. I knew the paper chemists called this property “hand.” Callahan’s paper had the most remarkable hand I had ever seen.

“Tear it in half,” Callahan said.

I took the sheet between my thumbs and forefingers and gingerly pulled, expecting the light and soft sheet to part easily. Nothing happened. I pulled harder, and still nothing. I smiled at Callahan, got a better grip, and gave it a yank. Then I twisted opposite corners around my fingers and frankly pulled at it. The absurd sheet refused to tear, and I realized how ridiculous I must look to Callahan to be unable to tear a flimsy sheet of paper. I suppose I lost my temper a little. I gathered as much of the paper as I could in each hand, bent over to put my hands on the inside of my knees, and pulled until I heard my back muscles crack. I let out my breath explosively and looked helplessly at Callahan.

He said, “Don’t feel bad, Carl. Nobody has been able to tear it.”

“You mean it?” I asked. I found myself puffing; I had not realized I was straining so hard.

“Yup. That paper has a tensile of 2,800 pounds per square inch, and a tear strength equally unbelievable.”

I looked at the little sheet and great possibilities began to occur to me. “Clothing,” I said. “Great heavens, think what this will do for the clothing industry. No more weaving. Just run this stuff off on a paper machine at five hundred feet per minute.” I stopped and looked at Callahan and said, “You will be able to make it on a paper-making machine, won’t you?”

“As far as I know.”

“Good,” I said. “When can we try it in the pilot plant.”

“Well, that’s where the problem comes in, Carl. I have to leave for the West Coast tomorrow, and I’ll be gone for six months. There’s nobody else around here to take it through the pilot plant. What’s worse, one of my technicians left this morning to take a job with Lafe Rude Consultants, Inc., up in Boston. The technician is an ethical man, and all that, but I’m afraid the word will be out on this paper now.”

My heart sank. Callahan said, “I’ve already started another of my technicians, John Bostick, on the process to make certain he can repeat my work. But that’s all we can do for a few months around here. The laboratories have never been so busy. What do you think we ought to do?”

The answer was obvious. “We’ve got to file a patent application right away. It isn’t ready to file, but we’ve got to do it anyway.”

Callahan said, “Oh, we’re in good shape. We know it works.”

I nodded and said, “What acids other than adipic will work?”

“Oh, azoleic, sebacic, a few others, I suppose.”

“What else other than amino alcohols? What other catalysts? Do you really need mercury vapor? Will some other metallic vapor do? What about temperature variations in making the polyester? How long a cure time? How much ultraviolet? Will the fibers be better if you draw them more? Can you get those tacky fiber ends in any other way? Can you improve them? What about the sheet-making conditions? Does oxygen in the air catalyze... ?”

Callahan held up his hands and said, “O.K., O.K., we don’t know anything about it. But we’re not going to find out these things until we open a research program, and we can’t open a program for at least six months. In the meantime that technician may...”

I held up my hands this time, and he fell quiet. We stood silently until I asked, “All the information in your notebooks, Henry?”

He nodded, and I continued, “Well, I’ll be back tomorrow to talk to you and Bostick. We’ll just have to file a patent application on what we have.”

We chatted a while about his work on the West Coast, and then we shook hands and I left. I had a few moments to think in the cab before I talked with Mr. Spardleton. Here I was in that situation that a patent attorney dreads. I had an incomplete invention, one that required a great deal of work before it could be filed, yet I had to file now in the incomplete condition. With it all, here was a most significant invention, one that would make the world take notice. This was one of the rare ones, I could feel it in my bones. It was obviously an industry-founder, a landmark invention on a par with the greatest, even in its incomplete condition. By golly, I was going to do a job on this one.

Mr. Spardleton was in a bad mood when I entered his office. I didn’t have a chance to say a thing before he bellowed at me, “Mr. Saddle, do you know what a plasticizer is?”

“Why, ah, yes. It is a material, generally a solvent, that softens and renders another material more flexible.”

“That’s right.” His fist banged on the desk. “Yet here,” he waved an Office Action at me, “is an Examiner who says that the term ‘plasticizer’ is indefinite, and I must give a list of suitable plasticizers when he knows that Rule 118 forbids me to put in such a list. Can you imagine? He is saying in effect that a chemist who works with synthetic resins does not know what a plasticizer is, and I must take him by the hand and teach him something he learned in freshman chemistry. It has nothing to do with the invention, either. I am claiming a new kind of lens holder, and I point out that the interior of the holder may be coated if desired with a plasticized synthetic resin coating. My, I don’t know what the Office is coming to. The Patent Office is the only institution in the world that does not know the meaning of the phrase ‘room temperature’. Some day ... What’s the matter, Mr. Saddle?”

I had pulled up a chair and hunched down in it. Mr. Spardleton recognized the symptoms. He put down the offending Office Action and settled back and waited for me to tell him my troubles.

I said, “I’ve got a hot invention. It is a paper that will replace cloth, strong, flexible, cheap too. We’ve only made one version of it, though, and I have to file an application right away because one of Callahan’s technicians left, and we can’t risk waiting.”

He nodded, and I went on, describing to him all the details of the invention and the situation. When I finished I stared morosely at the floor. Mr. Spardleton said, “What’s the problem? File a quick application now, and later on when you have more information, abandon it and file a good, full-scale application.”


I looked at him in surprise and said, “But somebody else has just as much information as we have, and he may start to experiment right away. That technician knows as much as we do. In another six months they could file a complete application and beat us out on dates; they’d be first with the complete application.”

“Well, what do you propose to do about it?”

I shrugged. “I’ll have to make up as good an application as I can right now. We’ll make some guesses at how the research would go, and put it in.”

“Oh now, look. You don’t know”--he began ticking off the points on his fingers--”if you really need the trialkyl aluminum, or the mercury-treated glass surface, or the heat, or the radiation, or any combination of them. You don’t have any idea of the conditions that are necessary to produce this paper.”

“I know.”

“All you’ve got is a single example that works. If you make your claims broader than that one example, the Examiner will reject you for lack of disclosure. This is basic in patent law. Ex parte Cameron, Rule 71, and 35 U.S.C. 112 will do for a starter.”

But I hadn’t worked with Mr. Spardleton for nine years for nothing, and he had taught me how to play this game pretty well. I sat up straighter in my chair and said, “Yes, but in Ex parte Dicke and Moncrieff the disclosure of nitric acid as a shrinking agent for yarns was enough to support a claim for shrinking agents broadly; the claim did not have to be limited to nitric acid.”

“Only because nitric acid was already known to be a shrinking agent for yarns.”

I said, “Well, adipic acid is a known polyester ingredient.”

“And all the other ingredients?”

I did then what he had carefully taught me to do when I was losing an argument: I quickly shifted to another point. “In Ex parte Tabb the applicant merely disclosed raisins and raisin oil, but that was enough to support claims to ‘dried fruit’ and ‘edible oil’.”

“But in that case the Board of Appeals said they allowed such terminology only because the equivalency of the substances could be foreseen by those skilled in the art, foreseen with certainty, too. Can you say that about your substances?”

I hesitated before I answered, and that was all he needed to take over. “A large number of ingredients was recited in In re Ellis, and since there was no evidence to show that they all would not work, the applicant was allowed broad claims. But you’d have trouble making your guessed-at ingredients stick. In the case of Corona Cord Tire Company v. Dovan, the court said the patentee was entitled to his broader claims because he proved he had tested a reasonable number of the members of a chemical class. Have you?”

I started to answer, but Mr. Spardleton was in full swing now, and he said to me, “No, sir, you haven’t. You are not ready to put in broad claims on a half-baked invention.”

It was the “half-baked” that did it. Controlling my temper I rose to my feet and said in a purposeful, quiet voice, “I think I see clearly how this case should be handled in this situation. I shall prepare it in that manner, and file it, and prosecute it, and obtain a strong patent on a pathfinder invention. I’ll keep you posted.” I turned and walked out. Just as I passed through the door I thought I heard him say softly, “Attaboy, Carl,” but I must have been mistaken. Mr. Spardleton never calls me Carl.

I got right at it the very next morning. I opened the office myself and began studying my notes to see how broad a claim I could write for the Tearproof Paper Case. I listed all the ingredients in one column, and then filled up the adjacent columns with all the possible substitutes I could think of. I didn’t even know it when Susan arrived at the office, stood in my doorway for a moment, and then tip-toed away. Later on Mr. Spardleton looked in on me, and I wasn’t aware of that, either. It was ten o’clock before I finally came up for air, and then I dashed out to the Marchare Laboratory for another talk with Callahan. I explained how I was going to handle the case to make sure we got a good, broad patent application into the Patent Office.

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