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Spicy IP Halloween trivia :patents and the spirits


In the “spirit” of Halloween, SPICY IP brings to you – a post about the Ouija board and its patent history. Read on for an interesting anecdote about a skeptical US patent examiner asking the inventor to provide a “working model”.

As a method of supposed communication with the spirit world, the Ouija board has both terrified and spooked a number of children and has been flogged to death as a plot vehicle in countless Hollywood horror flicks. Here’s where it comes from.

Spiritualism gained prominence in America in 19th century. As the Smithsonian reports, in 1886, the  Associated Press reported on a new phenomenon taking over the spiritualists’ camps in Ohio, the talking board; a board, with letters, numbers and a planchette-like device to point to them.

People playing with a Ouija Board.  (Pho

Image from here
Sometimes the world of the living gets mixed up with the world of the dead

The article gained popularity, but it was Elijah Bond, a local attorney who decided to act on it and filed a patent application in 1891. He wanted to protect the invention in order to commercially market the board as a toy/game. Apparently Elijah bond’s sister in law Helen Peters was a “medium” who regularly communicated with spirits!!

When the patent was filed in the US, the chief patent officer skeptical of the claims stated that “action on the merits is suspended, until device is proven by a working model to be operative”!

Elijah bond the inventor on the patent application knew that the patent would be rejected if they couldn’t prove its working. Accompanied by his “medium” sister in law Helen Peters, Elijah bond went to the patent office in Washington for demonstration of the device. The Chief patent officer asked if the board could spell out his entire name (his full name wasn’t known to both Elijah bond and Helen peters).

If this isn’t bizarre enough, everyone sat down and conducted a séance – lo and behold the board spelled the patent officer’s name accurately. Nobody knows whether it was the mystical spirits or the ideomotor phenomena which caused this. However the patent officer was visibly spooked and granted the patent. The granted patent (US446054 A) can be accessed here. Subsequently an inventor named William Fuld bought this patent and went on to build an ouija board patent empire covering other aspects of ouija board and its improvements.

Image from here

Image from here

Strangely enough the patent office story is true and has been verified by Ouija board historian Robert Murch.  As this article states “The first patent offers no explanation as to how the device works, just asserts that it does. That ambiguity and mystery was part of a more or less conscious marketing effort. These were very shrewd businessmen

Wonder if the spirits got a share of the royalty!;)

That’s all for now folks! and Happy Halloween!

Madhulika Vishwanathan

Madhulika Vishwanathan

Madhulika is a registered Indian patent agent and has completed her Master’s in Pharmacology from the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai. Her interests include issues involving pharmaceutical and biotechnology patent law, regulatory aspects like Hatch Waxman litigation and antitrust law.She is currently working at law firm based out of Memphis, TN.

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