Examiner of Silly Patents 3: Monkey thermometer

To take a break from all the gloom and doom of the last few week’s blogs, here is a different kind of look at patents. Very different.

Every now and then I will take a silly patent and pretend it isn’t silly. I will analyze and defend it in all faux-seriousness (see disclaimer at the end).  Usually I cannot defend it, but learn something in the process anyways.

From 1987, US 4,634,021 (Release mechanism) has a self-explanatory picture.

“A release mechanism is disclosed for releasing an object such as a ball from a body under the force of gravity. A bimetallic element obstructs or opens an opening in the body for retaining or releasing the object depending upon the temperature of the bimetallic element. The release mechanism may be incorporated into a novelty “brass monkey” for “emasculating” the monkey when the temperature decreases to a predetermined temperature at which the balls in the “brass monkey” are permitted to drop to a base which is designed to produce an audible sound when struck by the balls”.

I always try to give positive feedback and constructive criticism. In this particular case, the positive feedback is immediate and obvious. Anyone with the self-confidence to eternally attach his name to a drawing like this deserves our respect. Strength through goofiness.

On the constructive criticism side, there is more to be said. I believe that the inventor did not choose an optimal strategy to protect his excellent idea of using an emasculated monkey as a thermometer.

In my view, by patenting the inventor divulged too much information and gave the competition an unnecessary advantage. He opened his strategy, without really protecting it. Fundamentally, there seem to be too many workarounds around this patent.

For example, this patent most likely does not cover other animals. Castrating a donkey to tell the temperature would almost certainly be possible despite this patent. Using a human being would potentially lead to a court case. The arguments would revolve around whether a human being is biologically simian enough to be considered a special case of a monkey. I hesitate to speculate how that court case would end.

There are also non-testicular extensions of this idea which could have been pursued in the patent. In particular, something like a system with a French Revolution theme could present a similar user experience: when it gets cold, Marie Antoinette’s head is chopped off with a clang. This patent does not prevent such a user interface from being implemented.

There are also technical workarounds.  A bimetallic temperature valve is well-known. However, if the bimetallic valve were to be replaced by a sphincter-like structure, it is probable that the patent would not cover it.

What about the business case?  It is possible that this patent has indeed hit a niche which has not been extensively filled. I did not really find anything in the patent literature that would imply that this is a major technology area.

A Google search for “novelty thermometer” shows examples of today’s state of the art. I believe the figure below has some commonality in spirit with the patent. A rectal thermometer in a duck is used to measure bath water temperature. It is an unexpected combination.

Source: Screen capture.

I believe that a design patent to cover just the monkey implementation could have been more cost-effective.  Design patents are cheap to file and have no maintenance fees; on the other hand, they are only valid for 14 years against a utility patent’s 20 years. Alternatively, the inventor could have tried to broaden his patent significantly to cover other animals and user interfaces. That would, however, have raised the costs.

I strongly suspect that the inventor did not manage to make money from this patent. However, that does not in any way detract from the inventive step of this patent; one would not expect the see a thermometer implemented by using the clangs caused when a brass monkey is neutered and its testicles fall off.

Although an engineer type should never venture into aesthetics, I want to say something about artistic values. I find something poignant yet majestic about the figure of the monkey. This is almost worthy of a monument. If I had been the inventor — though I may be alone in feeling this — but if I had been the inventor, I think this figure would make an excellent gravestone. Why not? What could be a better memento for future generation to remember me by? Strength through goofiness is something to celebrate, throughout the generations.

All Examinations of Silly Patents: click here

Disclaimer: these analyses have very little to do with anything, and in particular have nothing to do with legal issues. Most of the patents cited are expired (or should be). I do not touch the “claims” section, which is the legally relevant part. These blogs constitute prior art, so that any new any ideas expressed here can no longer be patented.

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