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I've been re-reading "Surely you're Joking Mr. Feynman", and at one point he talks about how at Los Alamos they were asked to write down any idea, no matter how obvious involving nuclear technology, and the government would patent it. Feynman thinks this is ridiculous, and says he'll be talking to them all day with endless ideas of using a nuclear reactor to power things like a submarine, and airplane, a rocket, etc.

He winds up getting the patent for the airplane and the rocket, but someone already got the patent for the nuclear submarine.

While reading this, it suddenly occurred to me that patent searches are incredibly easy these days, and available on Google. But try as I might I couldn't find any patent issued to Richard Feynman at all. There were certainly other patents issued to the other nuclear scientists, but none to Feynman.

Now, Feynman also tells a story about how after the war, someone had called him up (Long Distance from all the way from California!) and wanted him to be the director of a laboratory that was going to develop a nuclear powered airplane, because his name was on the patent.

I can guess at a few different possibilities.

  1. Feynman is mistaken about this, and there weren't any patents, it was something else entirely or he made the whole story up.

  2. The patent(s) was applied for, but never issued because the examiner thought it was too obvious, or there was some other problem with the application. The story about someone calling him and offering him to be a director arose because they saw the patent application, not the issued patent.

  3. The patent(s) was granted, but either can't be found for some reason under Feynman's name (miss-spelling, etc)

Possibility one seems unlikely, especially because of the LD call story. I tried investigating possibility two, but patent applications only appear to be searchable online since 2001.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. Some defense patents are classified, so I guess it's not impossible Feynman's would be in that category. But I doubt it since 1) Classified patents are pretty rare, and Feynmans airplane work by his own admission was both pretty obvious and not very detailed and 2) I don't think there are any patents still classified from as far back as the 40's. $\endgroup$
    – simplicio
    Nov 17, 2019 at 4:31
  • $\begingroup$ In an interview in which he talks about this patent business, Feynman says "I think I got something like three patents, I don't know what they are anymore; three patents have my name on it". $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Nov 17, 2019 at 5:16
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa I saw that interview. Unfortunately there's no patents issued to a Richard Feynman. His son, Carl, yes. So that's why I suspect they were applied for, but never issued because patents must be "non-obvious to someone in the art". What I don't know is if, at the time, patents that were applied for but not examined could be examined by the public. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2019 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ Yea, I couldnt find any source for the patents that didn't cite RF himself. I did find a citation to a private communication with RF on the bib. of an academic history of atomic aircraft though, which makes me think the story isn't a total fabrication, and RF did do some brief post-war work on atomic aircraft, and that provided the basis of the story about being owed one dollar for the idea. Presumably he changed whatever the actual complicated bureaucratic issue was to a patent assignment to simplify the anecdote, or misunderstood/misremembered the issue himself. $\endgroup$
    – simplicio
    Nov 17, 2019 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ Citation mentioned above can be found on page 10 of the below pdf: media.defense.gov/2014/Oct/14/2001329848/-1/-1/0/… $\endgroup$
    – simplicio
    Nov 17, 2019 at 18:30

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