Back in library school, I remember distinctly being told that patent searches are one of the most difficult types of reference questions, because usually you're trying to find out if something isn't there. However, this patent search was difficult for a different reason.
I think I've mentioned before that one of my hobbies is metal detecting, which I share with my brothers. One of them emailed me this photo of something he had found, saying it was a chunk of metal about the size and shape of an ear with "PAT 154071" stamped in it, and asking if I could help figure out what it came from.
He had already done some online research and had a couple potential patent dates, but wasn't really sure. I love knowing right off the bat the best resource to check, so when I got this message I just typed in http://www.uspto.gov and clicked on "search for patents." The US Patent and Trademark Office has a full-text search, which is great, but since I was looking for a specific patent number, I just went to the Number Search, typed in 154071, and... that's when the problems started.
The first screen to come up said that this patent, dated August 11, 1874, wasn't available in full text, so it would have to be viewed as a scanned image. Which is fine, except viewing the image just prompted me to update my Quicktime plugin.
I tried going through the steps to update it, but I could not get the update to download from the Quicktime website. I tried this on a few different computers at my house and in the library, but all of them (all Windows computers) had the same issue. Next I tried searching for "can't download quicktime" and found someone with the same problem and an alternate link on the Apple website. This time the update did download and seemed to install, but I still couldn't view the image on the PTO website - and still got prompted to update Quicktime.
Frustrated, I went to my last resort: I used one of the library's Apple computers. I got a weird plugin update message too, but the image did display:
Actually, the PTO website said there were two images associated with this patent, but the other one was clearly for a different invention (and different patent number).
So, pretty cool, especially because of all the problems I had getting it. I couldn't tell from the drawing where the piece my brother found came from, but it was still worth the effort.
Since the patent drawing listed names, I thought I'd expand my search online and see what else I could find. I tried various combinations of the names of the inventors and "combined folding chairs and benches," but didn't have any luck.
So, I just tried searching for "patent 154,071," and boy did I get a surprise. The first result was for Google Patents, conveniently displaying the image that I had tried for two days (and had to use a Mac!) to view. I didn't know patent searches were a Google offering, but I suppose all public domain information is probably assimilated by now.
I am disappointed that the Google search was more productive than using the Patent Office's own website, and that they'd use a tool that relies on a problematic plugin.
But since I was at Google, I tried a few few things and found this entry in the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, page 214: