The simple patent drawing was once a work of art

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A flying machine from the 1860s drawn with shading, colors and detail not seen in today's patent illustrations.
A flying machine from the 1860s drawn with shading, colors and detail not seen in today's patent illustrations.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

The illustration that accompanies a patent application is a first glimpse inside the head of the inventor. Finally, an idea becomes a possibility, and even if an invention later proves to be impractical or an outright failure, the drawing serves as a tangible record of humanity’s quest to solve problems and move forward.
 
But the modern day patent sketches are stark chicken scratches compared to the intricately detailed, da Vinciesque artworks that once accompanied applications to the United States Patent & Trade Office, which first opened in 1790.

A fire in 1836 destroyed so many of the works that today would deserve a place on any museum wall. Details began to fall away as application rules after the fire required inventors to submit two illustrations. Making duplicate, elaborate illustrations was too costly and time consuming. Color, seen on the earliest patent drawings, was prohibited because pen and ink reproduced more clearly.

Simple and now iconic, the Edison lightbulb as it appeared in his application for a patent.
Simple and now iconic, the Edison lightbulb as it appeared in his application for a patent.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Today’s requirements call for even fewer details with a deliberate tendency towards a vague technical drawing. Too much detail can limit what a patent covers and possibly make requested revisions more difficult. There’s just enough to communicate an invention’s utility.

As for the artists whose work compels patent officials to delve into the dense particulars, they remain unheralded. Patent illustrations have no place for an artist’s signature.

A coffin designed to make one last check to see if the person is indeed dead.
A coffin designed to make one last check to see if the person is indeed dead.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
This early 1800s hundreds illustration shows a diving dress for underwater exploration.
This early 1800s hundreds illustration shows a diving dress for underwater exploration.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Prosthetic arm.
Prosthetic arm.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
In an era before electric fans and airconditioning, inventors came up with all sorts of ideas on how to keep cool.
In an era before electric fans and airconditioning, inventors came up with all sorts of ideas on how to keep cool.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Before th Wright Brothers, humanity's fascination with flight took on many forms.
Before th Wright Brothers, humanity’s fascination with flight took on many forms.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
An early version of ice skates.
An early version of ice skates.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
A toy horse.
A toy horse.
Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office