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Simultaneous invention and the race to the patent office

Applying for a patent is an important step for inventors, as other's might have similar ideas.

When thinking of inventors, people like to romanticise the image of one person toiling away at a workbench, working towards the eureka moment.

Though it makes for a compelling picture, this is not how invention generally happens. In an interesting phenomenon, discoveries tend to happen in multiple places at close to the same time.

The concept of simultaneous invention – people independently creating similar work at the same time – is evident in a number of famous inventions and discoveries throughout history. Innovators today should take a lesson from intellectual property coincidences in the past and be proactive when registering a patent in Australia.

Five different people claim to have invented the steamboat.

How common is multiple discovery?

Inventors coming up with their great works at similar times is a somewhat frequent occurrence. Writing for Political Science Quarterly in 1922, William F. Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas compiled a list of 148 well-known and more obscure examples of simultaneous invention.

These include famous instances – such as the theory of evolution and calculus – as well as others, including:

  • Sunspots – four scientists in 1611.
  • The steamboat – five inventors from 1802 to 1807.
  • The microscope – three inventors around 1610.

Inventing and patenting the telephone

In perhaps the most illustrative example of invention-related coincidences, lawyers for two different inventors filed patents for the telephone on the same day. According to the US Library of Congress, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both filed for a patent on February 14, 1876.

The lawyer representing Gray made it to the patent office and secured the 39th place is line. Unfortunately for Gray, Bell's lawyer – presumably waking up earlier or travelling faster – was the fifth applicant at the patent office that day. Bell ended up with the credit; he was granted US Patent Number 174,465 for Improvement in telegraphy.

That, however, is not the end of the story. In 2002, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution acknowledging the contributions of Antonio Meucci, an Italian inventor who demonstrated a working telephone in 1860. Lacking the funds to apply for a patent, Meucci filed for a caveat – a notice of a possible future patent that must be renewed yearly – on December 28, 1871. After 1874, he could no longer afford to maintain the caveat, opening the way for Bell to be granted the patent in 1876.

Fortunately, Australian inventors can chose to file a provisional patent application to preserve priority with their inventions. For more information about patent law in Australia, contact Alder IP today.