Tech Tuesday: What It Takes to Be an Inventor

In an earlier post, I made the case that physicists have the potential to be inventors (Inventors and Physicists: a Great Partnership). All scientists try to expand our understanding of nature and often along the way inventions can pop out.  The research tools they devise or the new principles they uncover can lead to new inventions.

But in reality anyone can be an inventor. Creative people from all walks of life often become inventors and actually obtain patents, and some of those patents turn out to be very valuable.  The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has awarded patents to all sorts of individuals: engineers, musicians, lawyers, business administrators, even children; the list goes on. In short, if an invention submitted to the USPTO appears to be novel and useful then the inventor is granted protection for their idea in the form of a patent which, for a period of about 20 years, prevents anyone else from using or selling the invention. The inventor’s creation becomes their property solely for that period of time. Here are just two examples of inventions from unexpected places.

Banking on the Future

A man named William Seward Burroughs, a bank clerk, came up with the idea of a mechanical adding machine to make things easier for those, like him, who spent hours reviewing ledgers for errors. His idea was awarded U.S. Patent Number 388,116 in 1888 and allowed him to start a company called American Arithmometer Company. This company became very successful and after his death was renamed Burroughs Adding Machine Company. The company continued innovating, developing better calculating machines and eventually computers in the 1950s, evolving into what became known as Burroughs Corporation. The company in 1960’s and 1970’s was second largest computer company in the industry with the leader being IBM.

Burroughs Corporation played an important role in advancing computer technology which is an essential tool for all physicists. What a connection! A bank clerk’s ideas led to a tool that helps physicists here at Jefferson Lab increase our understanding of nature. I have another, more personal connection to William Seward Burroughs. While a college student for one summer I actually worked at a Burroughs Corporation location as an electrical technician.

Honest Abe

The USPTO has awarded patents to people from countless professions, even politicians! Most of us know that President Thomas Jefferson, our lab’s namesake, was a prolific inventor.  But did you know that before becoming President, Abraham Lincoln was awarded U.S. Patent Number 6,469 in 1849 for "Buoying Vessels Over Shoals." At the time Honest Abe wasn’t a politician, but a river boat worker. Lincoln is still the only U.S. President to hold a patent.  A scale model of his invention is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Whether a physicist like Wilhelm Röntgen who invented x-ray photography or a paper bag factory worker like Margaret Knight who invented the flat bottom paper bag, great ideas, and thus inventions, can come from anywhere, creating new ideas that can make our lives better. Maybe the next big idea is yours!


Tech Tuesday blog posts written by Chief Technology Officer Drew Weisenberger.

Burroughs references-


Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, a joint venture of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. and PAE, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit