Unexpected patent inventors - the relative rarity of inventors from the creative arts fields

22 August 2016

Tens of patent applications cross my desk in a typical week, and there’s no denying that some are more interesting than others. Some teach you something you didn’t know in a topic of interest, or give a hint of what’s to come in a technology you use. Others can be odd or unexpected, leaving you wondering why anyone would have spent money filing a patent application for that. Others are interesting just for the people involved.

Last week, an inventor’s name caught my eye. The application I was reading mentioned Margaret Atwood, a Canadian. Curiosity quickly got the better of me - I am an ardent admirer of much of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s work, but could it be possible that the same woman who wrote Cat’s Eye, Oryx and Crake and (my favourite) The Blind Assassin had invented some remote signature verification technology? The answer, it seems after a brief hunt around the Internet, is yes. Margaret Atwood, possibly wearied by book tours yet wanting to fulfil her many fans’ desire for personal inscriptions, co-invented the LongPen, a device which can be used for remote book signing. While in a video chat, an author sat anywhere with an internet connection can remotely control a real pen to provide a personal note. Ms Atwood formed a company, Syngrafii, which builds beyond this initial idea, providing a means for providing a signature at a distance on financial and legal documents.

Margaret Atwood forms part of a group of what might be termed unexpected inventors. Did you know, for example, that Marlon Brando held US patents for a drum head tensioning device, that Jamie Lee Curtis found time to file a patent application for a nappy with pockets for baby wipes, or that after finding fame as one of the Marx brothers, Zeppo Marx obtained US patents for a cardiac pulse-rate monitoring apparatus? Ms Atwood isn’t even the only author on the list. Mark Twain (under his real name of Samuel Clements) obtained a patent for detachable elastic straps for clothing including, in his words, pantaloons.

But my personal favourite is Hedy Lamarr. In the 1940s, the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’, she stared opposite Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and was labelled the world’s most beautiful woman. But before you let that define her, it is worth noting that she is also a co-inventor on a jam-proof radio signalling method. This concept, now generally known as Frequency-hopping spread spectrum, meant that the frequency on which radio signals were sent changed over time, making it difficult to block. At the time, it was proposed the frequency would be selected using a punched roll of paper technology- similar to the way music was played on a ‘player piano’. We may not use punched paper anymore, but spread spectrum techniques are still used to counter incidental interference, noise and jamming in Bluetooth, digital radios, GPS and Wi-Fi networks.

I called this list of inventor unexpected, which may be because I tend to think of patenting as relating primarily to scientific endeavour. However, given the creative nature of the process of invention, perhaps it should be the relative rarity of inventors who excel in the creative arts which is surprising.


Marlon Brando US6812392, US6812392

Jamie Lee Curtis US4753647

Zeppo Marx US3473526, US3426747

Mark Twain US121992

Hedy Lamarr (named as Hedy Keisle Markey) US2292387

Caroline Day

Caroline Day


Our Expert
Caroline Day
Caroline Day
Location: Bristol (UK)

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