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Kids! Be the first one on your block…!

bomb patents
Sometimes, listening to NPR pays off.

In 1933, Leo Szilard patented the idea of a nuclear chain reaction. Szilard was a physicist and his patent was highly theoretical, but he tried to use it to gain clout in the Manhatten Project later. The government faced him down, but the issue was worrying. What if other scientists tried to control the project through the patent office? What about scientists in other countries?

So the government decided to file patents on the components of the bomb in the name of the individual inventors as the project progressed.

That presented a different set of problems. The whole project was extra-super-double-dog secret. Plutonium was called “copper,” the bomb was called “the gadget.” But patent applications are as clear and as explicit as the applicant can make them.

So the government invoked an obscure rule already in place: an application marked “secret” would be looked at by no-one in the patent office and filed away in a vault un-approved, forever pending.

Harvard grad student Alex Wellerstein has been looking up these old patents. Turns out, as individual components are de-classified, the individual patents have been granted and published. A lot of it is still secret, but thousands of techniques and methods and bits of hardware are now public.

One patent was issued 60 years after the application; that’s the longest he’s found so far. The applications are still reviewed annually. A lawyer for the Department of Energy told Wellerstein:

“Our feeling has been that a significant taxpayer investment was made to create the inventions and to prosecute the patents so that payment of the issue fee finalizes the effort to provide a property right arising from the government funding. Of equal merit is the recognition provided to the inventors. When the patent issues we make a small good faith effort to find the inventor or a surviving spouse and notify them of the issuance of the patent. When notify someone, they are usually deeply moved by the recognition provided for their long ago secret efforts.”

That’s kind of…touching. Of course, a lot of the old coots are dead now, but a tribute is a tribute.

You know what else is kind of touching? Right in the middle of the Big One, dubya-dubya-deuce, the government didn’t write any special laws or invoke any extra-legal war powers. The department that makes war knuckles under to the rules of the department that files papers. They’re building this huge fucking doomsday weapon in the middle of the bloodiest war in the history of man, and they’re worried about violating international patent law.

I don’t care what the lefties say, the American government makes a lousy supervillain.

March 28, 2008 — 9:23 am
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