The Importance of Intellectual Property

September 20 was the birthday of Sir James Dewar, who was born in 1842.  The Scottish chemist is noteworthy for inventing the Thermos.  This insulated storage vessel helps keep contents both hot and cool, and is used by everyone from scientists to coffee drinkers to school children.

Notice I did not say that Dewar is famous or even remembered for inventing the Thermos.  In fact, he never received a cent of royalties for his invention.

Dewar was involved in the race to achieve absolute zero.  In 1892, he took two nested chambers and removed the air between them, creating a vacuum.  The inner flask was able to maintain a constant temperature, which helped Dewar become the first person to liquefy hydrogen gas.

Unfortunately, Dewar never patented his discovery.  Instead, two German glassblowers named Burger and Aschenbrenner realized that the invention could be used commercially to keep drinks hot and cold.  They held a contest to name the device and founded Thermos GmbH in 1904. (“Therme” is Greek for “heat.”)  They even licensed trademark rights to three other companies to make and sell the Thermos around the world.

Furious, Dewar sued to regain intellectual property rights.  The court noted that Dewar had never made any previous attempts to exercise patent rights, and the suit was dismissed.  The Thermos Company subsequently made millions in royalty-free profits from Dewar’s invention.

There is an ironic end to this story.  Because there was no patent, other companies also began to make and sell insulated vacuum bottles, even calling them “thermoses.”  The Thermos Company sued, but after a decade of litigation they lost their case.  In 1963, a U.S. judge ruled that the term “thermos” had become so generic it was no longer subject to trademark.

As for Dewar, he was awarded a knighthood and several other honors.  His invention is widely used in science and engineering, where it is still known as a “Dewar.”

As a leading technology innovator, Agilent understands the importance of intellectual property.  Company founder Bill Hewlett based Hewlett-Packard’s first product on an innovation, using a light bulb to stabilize the output of the HP 200 audio oscillator.  Hewlett’s ingenious approach was protected by HP’s first patent, US 2268872 A.

Currently, Agilent’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) systems use a modern-day vacuum flask (still called a “Dewar”) to keep the magnet near absolute zero so the wires become superconducting.


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