Background – what does a patent get you?
Long ago, governments recognized that protecting inventors’ efforts was essential to encourage technological advancement but realized that limiting the time in which an inventor had the exclusive right to market their invention served the greater good by preventing the inventor from controlling a useful product forever. Patents were first granted in Europe in the late 1400s and the patent system was first enacted in the United States in 1790. To date, there have been thousands of baseball-related patents issued covering everything from game equipment to methods of compressing game broadcasts.
In the United States, a patent is an intellectual property right granted by the government to an inventor that “excludes others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States” for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted. Currently, a utility patent is enforceable for 20 years from the date on which the application was submitted, assuming that periodic maintenance fees are paid as scheduled.
What can be patented?
A utility patent will be granted for a machine, process, article of manufacture, composition of matter (or any improvement to an existing machine, process, article of manufacture, composition of matter) as long as it is “new, nonobvious and useful.” There are certain things that cannot be patented, however, such as laws of nature, abstract ideas and inventions that are morally offensive or “not useful.”
The “non useful” component is somewhat interesting in that the patent examiner is charged only with making a decision whether an invention will function as expected and otherwise has a “useful purpose.” As you will see below, “useful” does not always mean that the invention will be marketable.
So how did James Bennett hope to change baseball?
While it is not clear whether inventor James E. Bennett of Momence, Illinois is the same James Bennett who played for the Sharon Ironmongers in the 1895 Iron and Oil League, it seems clear that he did not exert any forethought as to whether his inventions would be practical when used under baseball game conditions. Either that or he just really hated catching a ball with the existing baseball glove technology available at the turn of the 20th Century.
By the early 1900s, baseball gloves had undergone constant improvement. Starting with George Rawlings in 1885, (Pat. No. 325,968) protective gloves were becoming more acceptable to protect fielders’ hands. In 1891, Harry Decker added a thick pad to the front of the glove (Pat. No. 450,355) and Bob Reach added an inflatable chamber (Pat. No. 450,717). By 1895 Elroy Rogers had designed the classic “pillow-style” catcher’s mitt (Pat. No. 528,343) that would be used with little change until Randy Hundley pioneered the one-handed catching technique in the 1960s using a hinged catcher’s mitt.
Regardless of the existence of the baseball glove technology in use at the time, James Bennett tried to think outside the box by eliminating the catcher’s mitt altogether and, instead, attaching that box to the catcher’s chest. Here is 1904’s “Base Ball Catcher” in all of its ill-conceived glory:
Bennett apparently envisioned the catcher squatting behind home plate acting as a passive target for the pitcher’s offerings and designed this contraption to accept the pitched ball into the cage such that it would strike the padding and drop through a chute into the catcher’s hand so it could be returned to the mound. As you can see, however, the device would have significant shortcomings should the catcher have to attempt to throw out a would-be base stealer, be required to catch the ball for a play at the plate, attempt to block a wild pitch or especially to field his position on a ball put in play in front of the plate.
|Front and Back View|
Bennett claims that this poorly imagined glove is easy to use because the fingers on the player’s throwing hand were specially designed to “permit the easy and quick removal of that hand to grasp and throw the ball.” Just as with the “Base Ball Catcher,” however, this design does not offer the player much in the way of a catching radius.
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