A modern look at a patent for an "Improvement in Telegraphy"

7 March 2014 (when I started this article – how time flies) marks the 138th anniversary of the issuance of US patent no. 174,465 to Alexander Graham Bell.  The patent was entitled “Improvement in Telegraphy” and follows on from Bell’s earlier patent no. 161,739, entitled “Improvement in transmitters and receivers for electric telegraphs”.  I thought it might be interesting to look at the claims of patent no. 174,465 to see how much (or little) patent claims have changed over the past 138 years.

Claim 1 recites “A system of telegraphy in which the receiver is set in vibration by the employment of undulatory currents of electricity, substantially as set forth.”

Claim 2 recites “The combination, substantially as set forth, of a permanent magnet or other body capable of inductive action, with a closed circuit, so that the vibration of the one shall occasion electrical undulations in the other, or in itself, and this I claim, whether the permanent magnet be set in vibration in the neighborhood [sic] of the conducting wire forming the circuit, or whether the conducting wire be set in vibration in the neighborhood of the permanent magnet, or whether the conducting wire and the permanent magnet simultaneously be set in vibration in each others neighborhood.”

I guess the first thing to note is that these claims are in the form of so-called “Omnibus claims”, where the specific features of the claimed system and combination are “substantially as set forth” (i.e. as described) in the specification.  Omnibus claims became a thing of the past in Australia in April 2013, and are now allowed in only a few countries around the world.  More and more, the Courts require the claims of a patent themselves to define the scope of monopoly sought, with the body of the specification being referred to only to clarify ambiguities and, even then, cautiously, lest an impermissible “gloss” be drawn off the specification.

The language and structure of the claims, however, feels familiar.  With the exception of some old-fashioned words and turns of phrase, these claims would not be that out of place in a modern patent specification.

I am well impressed by the breadth of these claims!  I guess you can claim this broadly with a paucity of prior art, but I wonder how hard it would be to support such broad claims under the modern legal requirements for support and enablement etc.

And what of infringement.  Would Bell’s patent, if it were in force today, encompass my smartphone?  Being a chemist, I realise I am going out on a limb here (although in my blissful ignorance, I know not how far), but it seems to me that even though transmissions between smartphones would presumably be digital, its microphone would employ undulatory currents of electricity in response to a user’s voice and, similarly, its speaker employ undulatory currents of electricity and vibrate when the phone receives the signal.  How’s that for patent drafting – a claim drafted 138+ years ago might encompass a smartphone!

If you want to have a look at this patent yourself, go to Google Patents (https://www.google.com/?tbm=pts) and enter patent no. 174,465.

Posted on March 11, 2014 .