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The lost era of beautiful patent art

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog.

National Archives/U.S. National Archives and Recor

For years now, economists and businesspeople have been lamenting the state of the patent system, in which companies patent even the most obvious inventions, crippling innovation in the process. Now, writing for Wired’s Gadget Lab blog, Alexandra Chang points out a whole other shortcoming: Patent illustrations today are absolutely, even embarrassingly, terrible.

Google Patents

When the Patent Office was founded in 1790, Chang writes, the drawings were professional, even artistic. But since then, “patent drawings have changed, degrading from detailed works of art to simplistic line drawings that barely qualify as illustrations.”

It makes sense that today’s patent drawings are bare-bones; patent applications are purely utilitarian. What’s really surprising is how beautiful patent drawings used to be. Why did inventors ever lavish so much attention on them? Kevin Prince, whose book, “The Art of the Patent,” collects much of the best patent art, tells Chang that the culture of patenting used to be different. Nowadays, big companies churn out huge numbers of patentable inventions every year. “Back then,” Prince says, “getting a patent was really like, ‘Wow.’ You wanted it to represent you and represent you very well.” These days, by contrast, “no one cares.”

Society does make you crazy


Most illnesses are easy to locate: We break our legs, suffer from headaches, and get arthritis in our hands. But where do mental illnesses happen? In a thoughtful essay in The Wilson Quarterly, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford who studies psychology, argues that we’re beginning to answer this question in a new way. During the glory days of Freudian analysis, we tended to see mental illness as something rooted in family life; more recently, we’ve thought of it as residing entirely in the brain. Now, she writes, we’re transitioning to a new model: “recognizing that social factors are among the causes, and must be part of the cure.”


Luhrmann’s essay uses the example of schizophrenia, which appears to be a complex outcome of many unrelated causes—the genes you inherit, but also whether your mother fell ill during her pregnancy, whether you got beaten up as a child or were stressed as an adolescent....[S]chizophrenia looks more and more like diabetes. A messy array of risk factors predisposes someone to develop [it].

Research from around the world, Luhrmann writes, has shown that social life plays a much larger role in schizophrenia than you might think. Immigrants, for example, suffer at higher rates than normal—especially when their social environments are stressful. (“One of the more disconcerting findings is that if you have dark skin, your risk of falling victim to schizophrenia increases as your neighborhood whitens.”) And changes in one’s social situation can help: Some studies show that sufferers’ symptoms improve if they are relocated to cleaner, more organized homes. In India, doctors and families take a broader and more supportive approach to schizophrenia, sometimes not even naming the disease. They still use cutting-edge drugs, but, Luhrmann writes, they achieve better results by combining pharmaceutical interventions with social ones.

Fitzgerald’s Muse

Every high school kid who reads “The Great Gatsby” faces the same challenge: figuring out just what’s so great about Daisy Buchanan. Writing in The Paris Review, Jason Diamond explains what we know about Ginevra King, the young, beautiful, and rich Chicago socialite on whom Daisy was (partially or mostly) modeled. For two years, starting at around age 19, she and F. Scott Fitzgerald exchanged romantic letters and even short stories—in one of her stories, for example, “a writer named ‘Scott Fitz-Gerald’ keeps a card file on his old girlfriends.”


As Diamond explains: “In the years leading up to World War I, King and her three closest friends—Margaret Carry, Courtney Letts, and Edith Cummings—were considered celebrities in Lake Forest and, indeed, throughout the Chicagoland area. Collectively known as the Big Four (a name they bestowed on themselves), they were the socialites of their era. The exclusive group didn’t allow new members, and each wore a rose-gold pinkie ring with The Big Four 1914 engraved on the inner band.”

The King-Fitzgerald romance was doomed: After one visit, during August 1916, Fitzgerald wrote in his journal that “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” Wikipedia, meanwhile, lists her occupation as “muse.”

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at