JF Ptak Science Books Post 1607
The United States Patent (And Trademark) Office is the keeper of millions of tiny flames of inspiration and invention, and was given its offices in Article 1 of the Constitution (""The Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries").
There are now 6,800 patent examiners working away in the Alexandria patent building, up from 4,200 just six years ago. Still, that's a lot of patents to have to inspect, and even in the best systems with the best people working there will some things granted patents that ought not have been.
One of the great shining lights of patented inventions in the Hall of Huh? must certainly belong to Boris Volfson, who was granted a patent in 2005 for his superconducting electromagnetically-engined space-time continuum-bending dual-piloted perpetual motion space/time ship. It seems to be run on a special mixture of nonsense physics, suspended belief, and hope, though I think the power source was mostly engineered from the "hope" side. It is slightly Mayan-esque, and looks pretty. Aside from that, there's nothing else going on here. (An article appeared in Nature 438, 139 (10 November 2005), calling the "invention" out and questioning the process behind the granting of the patent.)
There was also the "hyper-light-speed antenna", a less-than Star Trekian invention given U.S. Patent 6,025,810
that was able/supposed against all known physics and sense to transmit energy at speeds in advance of light via (again!) holes in our space-time continuum. The inventor writes: "The present invention takes a transmission of energy, and instead of sending it through normal time and space, it pokes a small hole into another dimension, thus, sending the energy through a place which allows transmission of energy to exceed the speed of light." I like the "pokes" and "thus" parts. [The abstract for the patent describes the invention so: "A method to transmit and receive electromagnetic waves which comprises generating opposing magnetic fields having a plane ol maximum force running perpendicular to a longitudinal axis ol the magnetic field; generating a heat source along an axis parallel to the longitudinal axis ol the magnetic field; generating an accelerator parallel to and in close proximity to the heat source, thereby creating an input and output port; and generating a communications signal into the input and output port, thereby sending the signal at a speed faster than light."]
But it isn't the absurdo-complex stuff that somehow drags itself through a primordial soup of caffeine-generated confusion--simple stupid stuff occasionally will get patented as well. Like the cat exercising device U.S. Patent 5,443,036, where someone somehow got a patent for showing how to use a laser pointer in cat hijinx. Or the "Method of swinging on a swing" (U.S. Patent 6,368,227), which seems to have been an experiment by a patent examiner with his seven-year-old son that got a life of its own for a little while before eventually being found out.
These of course are anomalies, and the good folks at the USPTO receive something like half-million patent applications a year, so I guess a few of these bogies will slip in from time to time. Perhaps it is time for me to try and patent Pressing the Letter "E" on the Computer Keyboard Really Hard and we'll see what happens.