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United States Supreme Court

46 U.S. 1

Wood  v.  Underhill

THIS case was brought up, by writ of error, from the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York.

It appeared that, in the year 1836, Wood took out amended letters patent for 'a new and useful improvement in the mode of making brick, tile, and other clay ware,' and filed the following specification of his invention:--

'Be it known that I, the said James Wood, have invented a new and useful improvement in the art of manufacturing bricks and tiles. The process is as follows: Take of common anthracite coal, unburnt, such quantity as will best suit the kind of clay to be made into brick or tile, and mix the same, when well pulverized, with the clay before [it] is moulded; that clay which requires the most burning will require the greatest proportion of coal-dust; the exact proportion, therefore, cannot be specified; but, in general, three fourths of a bushel of coal-dust to one thousand brick will be correct. Some clay may require one eighth more, and some not exceeding a half-bushel. The benefits resulting from this composition are the saving of fuel, and the more general diffusion of heat through the kiln, by which the whole contents are more equally burned. If the heat is raised too high, the brick will swell, and be injured in their form. If the heat is too moderate, the coal-dust will be consumed before the desired effect is produced. Extremes are therefore to be avoided. I claim as my invention the using of fine anthracite coal, or coal-dust, with clay, for the purpose of making brick and tile as aforesaid, and for that only claim letters patent from the United States.

JAMES WOOD.'

Dated 9th November, 1836.

In July, 1842, he brought a suit against the defendants in error, for a violation of this patent.

And at the trial the defendant objected to the sufficiency of the specification, 'because no certain proportion for the mixture is pointed out, but only that such quantity of coal must be taken as will best suit the kind of clay to be made into brick or tile; but that clay which requires most burning will require the greatest quantity of coal-dust; the exact proportion cannot, therefore, be specified; but, in general, three fourths of a bushel of coal-dust to one thousand brick will be correct. Some clay may require one eighth more, and some not exceeding half a bushel; so that there is no fixed rule by which the manufacturer can make the mixture, but that must be ascertained by experiments upon the clay; and the claiming clause in the specification is only for the abstract general principle of mixing anthracite coal-dust with clay, for the purpose of making brick, without any practical rule as to the proportions, which is too vague and uncertain to sustain a patent'; which objection was sustained by the court. The plaintiff excepted. And the verdict and judgment being against him, the case was brought here upon this exception.

The cause was argued by Mr. Silliman, for the plaintiff in error, and Mr. Rowley, for the defendants.

Mr. Silliman, for the plaintiff in error, made the following points:

The plaintiff insists,--

1. That he has in his specification given a general rule by which every kind of clay may be much better burned than by any previous process. And that the general proportions specified are, with some exceptions, the very best that can be used.

That a patent may properly be granted for a beneficial general rule, although there might be some exceptions to it not provided for.

2. That if it is necessary to entitle the plaintiff to a patent for a most beneficial invention for burning clay of the qualities usually found, that he should also discover the means of burning, to best advantage, clays of qualities not usually found; that his patent should not therefore be deemed void on its face, but he should be permitted to prove, by persons conversant with the business, that they could instantly determine, on inspection of clays of uncommon qualities, whether they required more or less than the usual burning, and how much more or less, so as to regulate the variation of proportions in such manner as to burn to the best advantage.

3. The plaintiff should have been permitted to show, under his specification by experts, that any kind of clay of which bricks can be made, however varied the qualities, can be better burnt under his general rule than by any previous process; and if such is the fact, the plaintiff should be entitled to a patent for the discovery, if he had given the general rule only, and had taken no notice of those exceptions, in which some uncommon kinds of clay can be best burned with a greater or less proportion of coal than that specified in the general rule.

4. The judge in his decision adopts all the errors of the defendants' objection, which states that there is no fixed rule by which the manufacturer can make the mixture, but that must be ascertained by experiments upon the clay. Suppose this to be so, and that the inventor has only furnished a guide by which such experiments can be successfully made, and that the subject, on account of the variable qualities of the materials, does not admit of greater certainty, and that by the simplest and cheapest experiments the manufacturer, in consequence of the plaintiff's invention, will be able to burn his bricks much better in less than half the time, and at less than half the cost of burning, by any other process, is not the inventor entitled to a patent for an invention practically so useful?

The fact that not a single brick has for some years past been burned, except according to the plaintiff's specification, is pretty good evidence that the manufacturers have been able to discover something from plaintiff's specification.

5. The objection, as adopted by the court, declares that the claiming clause in the specification is only for the abstract general principle of mixing anthracite coal-dust with clay, for the purpose of making bricks and tiles, without any practical rule as to the proportions, which is too vague and uncertain to sustain a patent. Suppose this objection true in point of fact, and that no information had been intentionally suppressed, and that the qualities of clay varied so much that the proportions most useful could only be ascertained by an experiment on each bed of clay, it might, nevertheless, be a very useful invention, for which the inventor should be, in some measure, compensated by a patent. But this part of the objection is not true in fact, for the claiming clause is of the invention of using fine anthracite coal, or coal-dust, with clay, for the purpose of making brick and tile 'as aforesaid.' These words, 'as aforesaid,' refer to the general rule of three fourths of a bushel of coal for a thousand bricks, with the exceptions or variations previously expressed.

6. The judgment should be reversed, with costs, including the costs in the Circuit Court.

Mr. Rowley, for the defendant in error.

The patentee's specification is uncertain and insufficient. It furnishes no rule for making bricks, without the manufacturer's first making a series of experiments. The most it does is to prescribe in about what manner the trials are to be conducted; which is not enough to sustain his patent. The King v. Arkwright, Dav. Pat. Cas., 106 (per Buller, J.); Turner v. Winter, 1 T. R., 606 (per Ashurst, J.); Boulton v. Bull, 2 H. Bl., 484 (Buller, J.); Harmer v. Playne, 11 East, 101 (Lord Ellenborough); The King v. Wheeler, 2 Barn. & Ald., 345 (Abbott, Ch. J.); Gods. Patents, 85; Lowell v. Lewis, 1 Mason, 182 (Story, J.); Langdon v. De Groot, 1 Paine, 203; Phill. Pat., 83, 267, 268, 283, 284, 289.

Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the court.

NotesEdit

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).