The Internet portal opens the door on 200 years of patents revealing a world of inventive designs.
In 1992, in happier times, Michael Jackson had an idea. Wouldn't it be cool to have a pair of shoes that allowed the wearer to lean forward at an angle of 45 degrees. The gravity-defying feat would surely inspire awe in the legions of Jacko fans.
The entertainer consulted his tailors and one of the more improbable devices to receive a US patent was born. Patent number 5255452 was issued on October 26 1993: "A system for allowing a shoe wearer to lean forwardly beyond his centre of gravity by virtue of wearing a specially designed pair of shoes which will engage with a hitch member movably projectable through a stage surface."
The invention put an end to a period of stage dysfunction for Jackson: how to repeat the leaning forward trick he did in videos, accomplished with the aid of wires and harnesses, in a live concert. Shoes with a hole in them to latch on to a hook in the floor seemed the answer.
Whether Jackson ever used the device remains unknown, but the existence of the patent comes courtesy of the latest tool unveiled by the search engine Google. Following its attempts to map the globe, place world literature on the web, provide a directory of images and offer streaming video, Google has turned its attention to the world of invention.
Seven million US patents, dating from 1790 to mid-2006, are available for search, with the site offering scanned images of the original filings. Although the information was previously posted online by the US patent office, Google claims to offer a better search facility for the information.
"It's a natural extension of our mission to make this public domain government information more easily accessible," said Google's Doug Banks.
While the records offer users a chance to peruse the filings by some of the most celebrated inventors - Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers - they also give an insight into the musings of those who turned their hands to inventing in their down time.
Take Jamie Lee Curtis. In February 1987, the actor was knee deep in nappies, looking after her adopted daughter, Anne. Then she had an idea. Why not make a nappy with a built-in pocket containing a baby wipe? In June 1988, patent number 4753647 was born: "A disposable, integrated, multi-piece infant garment."
Star Wars director George Lucas also had children on his mind, for different reasons. In April 1980, a month before the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the first Star Wars sequel, he filed a patent for "the ornamental design for a toy figure". The line drawings accompanying the filing show the diminutive figure of Yoda.
Other Hollywood figures feature on the list of patent holders. In 2002 Marlon Brando, possibly with a view to setting up a lucrative sideline on his private island in Tahiti, claimed the patent for a "drumhead tensioning device and method".
Unfortunately, Brando's invention of a tuning ring "threadedly coupled by a tuning linkage to a retaining member fixed to the drum" was not granted until November 2004, four months after the actor's death.
A contemporary of Brando, the actress Julie Newmar, whose career highlight was playing Catwoman in the Batman TV series, had a second career as a pantyhose mogul, selling the Nudemar range. Her design for Pantyhose with Shaping Band for Cheeky Derriere Relief was granted patent number 3914799 in 1975.
Another actress, Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr, holds one of the most important patents, a "secret communication system" she filed in 1941. "An object of the invention is to provide a method of secret communication which is relatively simple and reliable in operation, but at the same time is difficult to discover or decipher," Lamarr and her husband, the composer George Antheil, wrote in the application.
The device, to guide radio-controlled torpedoes, is considered ahead of its time, and was not used until 1962, after the patent had expired, when the US military employed it in the blockade of Cuba.
The device's frequency-hopping idea is seen as providing the basis for today's spread-spectrum communication technology, which is used in mobile phones and wireless technology. Lamarr made no money from her invention.
Other entertainers had less weighty matters on their minds. Both Prince and Eddie Van Halen received patents for portable musical devices - a musical instrument support and a portable keyboard respectively - while Gary Burghoff, aka Radar in the long-running TV series MASH, patented an "enhanced fish attractor device" to dangle from the side of a boat.
In 1873 Samuel L Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, filed an application for an "improvement in scrap books". The author's improvement consisted of sticky sections on the pages: "The scrap book is, so to say, self-pasting, as it is only necessary to moisten so much of the leaf as will contain the piece to be pasted in." The idea did not catch on.
Google's idea probably will. Like any search engine it will provide amusement for the idle, but will also be a useful resource for garden shed inventors.
Anyone toiling away on their design for a shark protector suit, for example, may like to put that eureka moment on hold while they check out patent number 4833729. As with most good ideas, someone else got there first.
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