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Friday, August 2, 2013

3-D Printing the 19th Century

Antique inventions †Antique inventions â€" like this 1875 flower stand â€" whose once-patented designs are now in the public domain, have been brought back to life by Martin Galese, a 3-D printing enthusiast and attorney.

They are the dreams of dead men: a hat comb, a drinking cup that would not dribble in bed, a stove pipe screw and a flower stand, quietly archived in the United States Patent and Trademark Office for the last century.

Until now.

Martin Galese, a 31-year-old lawyer in New York, is resurrecting bits and pieces of bygone eras, thing by thing.

Not unlike the fictional scientists of “Jurassic Park,” Mr. Galese scours the patent office’s archives for the “design DNA” of antique inventions, then reinterprets them as design files for today’s 3-D printers. He has posted more than a dozen of these forgotten inventions on his blog as well as the 3-D printing design library, Thingiverse, for anyone to make today.

“If you look at the figures in older patents, the 19th century patents are really beautiful. They’re really works of art,” said Mr. Galese who finds these early engravings much more beguiling than modern software schematics he has worked with as a patent lawyer.

One favorite is an 1875 pot scraper, with elegant lines and a humble utility that was trumpeted in the words of its inventor, who declared:

“To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, URIAS CRAMER, of New Philadelphia, in the county of Tuscarawas and State of Ohio, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Pot-Scrapers.”

The scraper’s patent application breathlessly described how it could scour both curved and straight-sided pots of nearly any radius, and was illustrated with several carefully hand-cut images, which Mr. Galese reproduced as a 3-D model:

But why go to all the trouble of reproducing the past in painstaking detail? Why rebuild every curve and vector wrought by Urias Cramer in cast iron in the 1870s?

“You’re holding the 19th century by way of something that was produced in the 21st century,” said Mr. Galese, who finds in these objects a tangible link to the past. He’s also made a chopstick holder from the 1960s and a portable chess set from the 1940s.

Today, he said, the patent system has a bad rap. Many people see it as a fount of endless intellectual property wars between tech firms, or fuel for thuggish, “patent trolls,” ready to exploit the system’s protections for cash.

After working as an attorney in patent litigation cases, Mr. Galese said he wishes more people saw the patent archives as a rich repository, flush with freely available designs. He sometimes refers to the patent office’s archives as the “original Thingiverse,” comparing it to the rapidly growing online library of design files shared by 3-D printing hobbyists today.

Others who have seen his 3-D printing files frequently ask why he keeps posting “patented” objects online, he said, not understanding that many former patents are now in the public domain.

“People don’t think people appreciate that aspect of the patent system,” he said.

Most patents issued today last 20 years, but in the past patent protections could be shorter, sometimes lasting 17 years, sometimes less. Out of the more than 8 million patents registered in the United States, only about 2 million are still in force, according to Dennis Crouch, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law who conducted an analysis on the subject last year.

That leaves nearly 6 million patents in the public domain, free for anyone to reuse, remix or re-purpose.

While Mr. Galese has only produced a handful of these as 3-D designs, he is still looking in the patent office archives for simple, charming objects with some kind of link to the past, like the bookmark that not only holds your place, but holds a pen.

Still, he’s never sure how close he gets to an exact reproduction, and worries about the unconscious influence of our modern world, awash in design.

“There is so much more design in our world, so many more objects,” he said, chuckling at the comparison to the movie, “Jurassic Park,” in his work.

“There’s always this question: did they bring back what was actually a dinosaur or something they thought was a dinosaur?”