Innovation in America

Honeywell’s patent on a thermostat dial.

Via Farhad Manjoo at Slate, a fine example of patent scrutiny by sleepwalking.

Honeywell was issued US patent 7,159,789 for a dial on a thermostat:

A thermostat having a thermostat housing and a rotatable selector disposed on the thermostat housing. The rotatable selector adapted to have a range of rotatable positions, where a desired parameter value is identified by the position of the rotatable selector along the range of rotatable positions. The rotatable selector rotates about a rotation axis….

I think I’ll apply for a patent on a timekeeping device with a circular housing with 12 large and 60 small equidistant markings and two moving indicators (“arms”) mounted on concentric rotating shafts.

Wells Cathedral clock, ca. 1390

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

19 thoughts on “Innovation in America”

  1. Ha! Well done. I will patent a hot ball of hydrogen and helium that hangs in the air during the “daytime”.

  2. What else would one expect from a system that attempts to monopolize ideas, information, and knowledge by equating them with physical property.

    1. Well, how about limiting the grant of patent privilege to innovations which are both original and non-obvious to a normally skilled professional? That used to be the idea before the Patent Office gave up.

      1. Honeywell’s lawyers appear to have convinced someone at the patent office that something about their thermostat dial was “original and non-obvious to a normally skilled professional”. To me, it seems pointless to debate “reasonable” limits on something so unreasonable as the granting of imaginary monopolies on imaginary property,

  3. As usual when reading a patent it’s hard to know exactly what the claims cover (this is where the lawyers really do their work in writing a patent). I will say that the drawing seems to show the very iconic and beautiful Honeywell wall thermostat. It’s an elegant design unfortunately less common now as we move to “smart” digital thermostats.

    1. The devil is in the details.

      From the Description section, it appears that the patent covers the incorporation of a rotating knob as part of the controls of an electronic thermostat, as well as the incorporation of non-rotating elements (like a display) inside of the rotating knob. In other words, a way to make an electronic thermostat that looks like the iconic round Honeywell electro-mechanical thermostat.

      So, while it may be overly broad (I’m no expert), it doesn’t seem like that unreasonable patent.

  4. The value of the patent is not so much the monopoly it protects but the legal threats you can issue on your competitors.

      1. I’d say if one can patent a rotary thermostat dial in 2007, one can patent pretty much anything

  5. Ignore the description and read the claims:

    1. A thermostat having a thermostat housing, comprising: a rotatable selector having a front face, and further having a range of rotatable positions, wherein a desired parameter value is identified by the position of the rotatable selector along the range of rotatable positions, the rotatable selector being rotatable about a rotation axis; a potentiometer coupled to the rotatable selector; and a non-rotating element at least partially overlapping the front face of the rotatable selector, the non-rotating element fixed relative to the thermostat housing via one or more support member, the one or more support member being laterally offset relative to the rotation axis of the rotatable selector.

    Sounds somewhat narrower.

      1. James, JerryN above points out how the description in the invention disclosure relates to this claim. If you read the introduction you can see that they aren’t remotely claiming to have invented the idea of using a rotating dial to select the desired temperature. They’re trying to reconcile the use of a dial like this — specifically, as Jerry points out, one that looks like the original, iconic circular electro-mechanicial Honeywell thermostat — with a digital read-out that maintains its fixed horizontal orientation sitting in the center of this dial. In other words they want the digital thermostat to look as much as possible like the one that people are actually familiar with.

        So it appears the claims are super-narrow. If you want to build a digital thermostat with a dial control where the (digital) readout is off to the side (rather than in the middle of the dial) you’re welcome to do so. In some sense they appear to be patenting the housing design they had to devise to put the readout in the middle of the dial itself.

          1. Their idea is to put the fixed horizontal readout in the centre and make the dial a ring, see Figure 2. I agree with anon and ask again: where’s the invention?

          2. I don’t have any particular brief for Honeywell in this instance and I’m sure there are many problems in our current system.


            1. I don’t know whether this design is original; simply asserting that it’s not isn’t an argument (the Monty Python rule).

            2. I’m not sure that it’s obvious to place a digital readout in the center of a dial control rather than somewhere else.

            3. It seems likely to me that Honeywell was trying to protect digital designs that imitated the “look and feel” of their original very beautiful electro-mechanical design when they filed this patent. Whether that look and feel counts as legitimate IP and/or whether this patent or for that matter any patent was an appropriate method of protecting it if so, I can’t say. But I understand why they were trying to do it.

            4. The original claim here as I read it was that the USPTO had awarded a patent on the use of a dial control to indicated the desired temperature on a thermostat. And this was deemed evidence that they were completely clueless in this instance and maybe in general. I think bemused and JerryN have made it clear that this isn’t the case.

            5. Even if you think this patent is ridiculous, it’s so narrow that it’s hard to argue that it stifles other innovation. Nest or whomever can utilize a different design that places the readout somewhere other than the center of the dial control. It would still function fine.

            6. But you know what? It wouldn’t look as sweet. I bet Nest (and consumers they’re aiming for) prefer this design. Which says to me that there’s something non-trivial about this design after all.

  6. This is RIDICULOUS… Smh. Sidebar: I actually own a Honeywell thermostat, its the RTH7600D model. It’s a horrible device that keeps shutting down every other day… What I am trying to say is: Dear honeywell, stop this nonsense and STOP making thermostats!

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