Saving a History of Invention From the Shredder

Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and cofounder of the patent holdings company Intellectual Ventures, has a cutaway illustration of a “Type-Writing Machine” hanging in a clear plastic frame on his office wall. It is a lithograph of the original patent, produced a hundred and twenty-four years ago, when the United States Patent and Trademark Office first approved the idea. The paper is now the color of flan.

The lithograph, a sheet describing United States Patent No. 416,257, was a reference document that had once been stationed in the P.T.O.’s vast library of intellectual-property records; it had banked more than a century of service and, like many of the library’s oldest documents, may have passed through thousands of hands. It also did a short stint in another location: the recycling bin. In 1994, the P.T.O. began digitizing its records. In August of 2001, the office announced it would stop maintaining its traditional libraries. Its paper records, aside from those destined for the National Archives or examiners’ offices, were doomed, bound for a recycling facility.

Read the rest over at The New Yorker.

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