130 years ago: Paul Perret and the first Swiss patent

01.11.2018 | IP news

The first Swiss patent from La Chaux-de-Fonds


One-hundred-and-thirty years ago, Paul Perret was granted the first patent in Switzerland. It was published on 1 November 1888. Since then, countless innovations have established Switzerland as the land of the inventor. Patents are not only an important form of protection, but also a valuable source of information, and with the rise of big data and artificial intelligence, they are gaining in importance.


Paul Perret, from La Chaux-de-Fonds, filed a patent for his invention 130 years ago at the then Federal Intellectual Property Agency in Bern (today the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property). It could not have been a more typical invention for Switzerland. It was for a watch movement, which he described over three pages including figures (drawings), in patent specification number CH1. In the years that followed, Paul Perret, who came from French-speaking Switzerland and lived from 1854 to 1903, applied to patent even more innovations. In 1881, he became a candidate for the position of director at the watch school in La Chaux-de-Fonds, but was not selected.


Interestingly, four of the first ten patents in Switzerland came from the watch industry. Even today, patents are not only an important protection tool for this industry, but also an important marketing instrument because a strong patent portfolio is considered an indicator of the innovative strength of a company.


The land of the inventor


However, other industries have good ideas, too. Countless more innovations followed Paul Perret’s watch movement invention, many of which have ensured that Switzerland has acquired a global reputation for being the land of the inventor. The Velcro fastener, the electronic toothbrush, the zip, Toblerone chocolate, the disinfectant Merfen and many more are products that were invented here in Switzerland. Even today, Switzerland is still at the forefront with its innovative companies as proven by the Global Innovation Index.


Why patent an invention?


A patent protects an invention from plagiarists and grants the owner an exclusive right to patent protection for a maximum of 20 years. In Switzerland, an innovation is patented through the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property (IPI). Here, patent experts – all of whom are engineers or scientists – examine the invention. To be granted a patent, the owner must in return disclose the exact way their invention works in a patent specification. This is the “contract with society”, so to speak, and because of this disclosure, experts can then understand how the invention works and develop the technology further. This way, both patent owners and society benefit, which is why patent specifications are accessible to everyone.


From the filing cabinet to big data


And it is worth taking a look at patent specifications because patents, of which there are more than 100 million worldwide, are an impressive treasure chest of information. Experts believe that, depending on the industry, up to 80 per cent of disclosed technical knowledge can be found in patents alone.


But 30 years ago, the patent office had to be visited personally to carry out such research, and this by fighting through a stack of paper files. Today, all that is needed is a computer with internet access. Detailed patent information can be retrieved with special software, which makes it possible for example to make comparisons between companies.


The possibilities of digitalisation


Technological questions were the focus of attention for a long time in patent searches (such as the state of the art, what has already been patented or whether a patent is being infringed). Today, digital possibilities allow relevant, strategically important business information to be retrieved from patents. “It is possible to detect early on where a new business area is developing, where new players are emerging, and where future Google searches are lurking based on unusual patent activity,” says Theo Nyfeler, Head of Patent and Technology Searches at the IPI. This is why in the meantime even investors are using targeted patent searches to determine company potential.


A brief look back at the first five patents in Switzerland


These are the five first patents according to publication date:

1. Watch movement (Paul Perret, La Chaux-de-Fonds)

2. Embroidery machine (Saurer & Söhne, Arbon)

3. Umbrella frame with ball joint (A. Burkhart, Bern)

4. New scaffold bracket (J.G. Grossmann, Riessbach-Zurich)

5. New scaffold-hook combination as scaffold bracket (J.G. Grossmann, Riessbach-Zurich)


The documents linked are archived in the global patent database Espacenet of the European Patent Office (EPO). This website, which was launched in 1998, today contains more than 100 million patents.