Building a Better Road Sign

[Ed Note: This is the first installment in a multi-part series investigating Linus Pauling’s patents and patent disclosures.]

Linus Pauling was a man concerned with the well-being of others who thought a lot about ways in which the average person’s quality of life could be improved. Over the course of his life, he developed a number of patents that arose out of his novel ideas – developed both alone and in collaboration with other scientists.

But Pauling’s ideas for patents were not always successful, in some cases because other people beat him to the punch. Pauling’s interest in a non-blinding road sign is an example of one such idea that seemed novel, but which had already been claimed by others.

In December 1983, Pauling wrote to James A. Thwaits, President of International Operations and Corporate Staff Services at 3M (a global innovation company responsible for inventions such as the Post-it Note) with an idea that he felt might solve an everyday problem. Pauling’s concern was that he and many other motorists encountered difficulty reading road signs when the sun or a very bright sky was positioned directly behind the sign.

To solve this problem, Pauling suggested that transparent glass or plastic rods be embedded in a road sign “penetrating from one side of the sign to the other.” The end of the rods facing toward the sunlight would be shaped to gather light from the “sun side” and redirect it along the rods in such a manner that it outlined the words on the sign. This could be achieved with the use of “several small rods…grouped together” like fiber optics in a manner that would promote internal reflection across their surfaces. Pauling concluded that many accidents were caused by the illegibility of backlit road signs and the resultant distraction of motorists trying to make out the letters.

Later in December, Pauling received a letter informing him that his road sign idea had been forwarded to the Corporate Technical Planning and Coordination Department at 3M, and was advised to obtain a patent for the idea in order to protect it and to aid in the idea-sharing process with 3M. If Pauling did not pursue the patent, his idea would be treated as non-confidential. He was also advised to consult a patent attorney on the patentability of his road sign. Included with the letter was a booklet titled “About Your Idea!” which discussed policies for idea submissions.

Nelson, et al., who were among Pauling’s competitors for a non-blinding sign.

Pauling’s next step was to write to Reginald J. Suyat of the law firm Flehr, Hohbach, Test, Albritton & Herbert, outlining the non-blinding road sign idea and inquiring as to the patentability of it. Suyat answered with the news that, in order to ensure that Pauling’s idea was a novel one, Suyat’s firm would need to conduct a search of the Patent Office literature, at a cost of $600. Pauling complied, and within a few weeks Suyat’s firm had discovered eleven existing patents that originated from ideas similar to Pauling’s, most of which had been registered between 1928 and 1939.

In his response, Suyat noted

The patents…disclose signs and a game which are illuminated by reflective sunlight or artificial lighting.  Light is transmitted through translucent or transparent inserts.  In particular, Slutsky…discloses the idea of a sign whereby sunlight is transmitted through openings formed in the sign to cause sign characters to be visibile from the front side of the sign.  Nelson, et al. …also disclose that a sign may be placed such that sunlight from the rear of the sign would be transmitted through translucent members in the sign.  Speers…discloses light-transmitting pegs, while Gill…discloses a translucent member with opaque material applied thereto.

Thus presented with convincing evidence that his idea was already taken, Pauling abandoned his road sign and directed his energies elsewhere.

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