One thing that becomes strikingly clear when you do liberal arts research at a technical school is that there are significantly fewer opportunities for student research than in other fields. Certainly we encourage our students to do individual research in class. But to many students, this seems like a pedagogical activity without the real-world research consequences that their peers in other departments get to experience. Engineering, biology, chemistry, and other disciplines all demand student workers in labs, shared grants, co-authored papers, and other collaborations. In contrast, historians rarely write with others and don’t always have the research funds even to hire a research assistant. This left those in my department scratching our heads about how to give our students the same sort of research opportunities available to students in other fields. One answer was to embrace the digital humanities. And, looking to lean in to our strengths, we decided to start a website that presents the history of patents.
The site will provide historical context for patented innovations, in the form of written entries detailing each patent’s development, technical significance, and outcomes. In a later stage, we also hope to present the context behind which patents are filed, as well as the geographical, temporal, and personal connections between different inventions and innovations that are awarded patents through a mapping feature. This project will allow for the exploration of such connections and ultimately lead to a better understanding of who files patents and where, why some result in successful inventions and others vanish into obscurity, and, in general, the history of innovation in this country.
To begin, we applied for and received a Faculty Seed Grant from our university, the New Jersey Institute of Technology. This grant first allows us to build a pilot version of the website so that we can begin entering and displaying entries. The grant has also enabled us to hire an undergraduate research assistant who will generate a few entries for the website. More entries will come from a course called “Invention and Regulation” that Dr. Elizabeth Petrick crafted specifically to generate another round of entries. In the course this past fall, students could select from a range of patents that were granted to NJIT faculty, staff, and students. From there, they were put into research groups with other students who had picked the same or similar patents. Over the course of the semester, the students learned the history of innovation from assigned readings on legal history and the history of science. But they also learned about this history by conducting oral history interviews, looking at patent applications, and other primary source material on their particular patent. By the end of the course, we had several entries for the new website, which are currently being edited by a graduate student in collaboration with the undergraduate students who originally composed them. The seed grant also allowed us to hire this graduate assistant. What’s even more exciting is that we have now begun collaborations with Dr. Gerardo Con Diaz at UC Davis who will teach a course on computer and law similar to “Invention and Regulation.” His students’ entries will also be entered onto the website after being edited in the same fashion.
Certainly we hope that our digital history of patents provides a service to the broader public. What inventions mattered? Why? What made their inventors successful? How did the public react to these innovations? The blog will not only introduce readers to the process of filing a successful patent; it will also allow readers to understand why certain technologies were needed, what obstacles innovators faced in creating those, and how even successful patents did not always yield significant changes in the public use of technology. But even before we have launched the site and gained an audience, we have met a main goal of the project: helping students engage in substantive original research.