Have a technical question? Look to patent applications!

Tankless Water Heater US8276548B2
My husband and I are in the process of remodeling our house.  Among the more fun tasks associated with the remodel is the selection of new appliances.  During a recent discussion of hot water heaters (we have to upgrade to an instant tankless heater!), my husband mentioned that he was curious how gas-fueled tankless hot water heaters work.  While I had a good guess, I didn’t want to share it with him until I confirmed I was correct.  A quick search on the web sites of some major appliance retailers provided little technical information, so I turned to the source I use daily at work—the USPTO’s patent and patent application database.  To narrow the results, I entered the name of a common manufacturer of hot water heaters into the assignee field, and searched for gas tankless hot water heaters.  The search results produced a few solid patent applications, including one application with a well-written background section that explained the core technology.  By reading the application, I confirmed my guess was correct, plus I learned about new mechanisms for recovering waste heat produced by fuel-fired heating appliances.
So what is the point of this little anecdote?  After I read the patent application, it occurred to me that most people may not appreciate that the single largest collection of technical details relating to actual, manufactured and/or retail products is the USPTO’s patent and application databases.  The US government grants limited monopoly rights to inventors of new and useful inventions (including processes, machines, manufacture, or composition of matter) in exchange for public disclosure of how to make and/or practice the inventions.  Accordingly, typical patent applications include informative background sections where the general state of the art is discussed as well as extensive details pertaining to the invention.  These details might include overall system/apparatus structural details, controls, alternative implementations, and more, all accompanied by drawings illustrating the features of the invention. 
While granted patents have been publicly available in the US since the first patent was granted on July 31, 1790, the advent of the Internet as well as the decision by the USPTO in 2000 to also publish applications for patents, regardless of patentability, has led to an enormous database of patents and applications that are available for free, at one’s fingertip, and easily searchable by keywords, inventor, owner/assignee (e.g., the company at which the invention was developed), classification, and more.  So the next time you have a question about how one of your household appliances works, or you are wondering how your competitor’s product is made, look it up in a patent! 

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