The Story of Phyllis Schlafly’s Devotion to Patents and Inventors

Phyllis Schlafly was a true friend of and advocate for the American inventor.

Mrs. Schlafly’s life-long admiration of inventors was deeply felt and well-founded.  Her biographer reports Mrs. Schlafly regarded an inventor to be “the most glorious product of the free-enterprise system.”  She had firsthand exposure to an inventor:  her father, Bruce Stewart.

Up Close and Personal

Mr. Stewart worked at Westinghouse for 25 years as a sales engineer.  However, as a result of the Great Depression in 1930, Mr. Stewart lost his job, costing him his livelihood, bringing great hardship to his family.  His wife’s income working as a librarian became the Stewarts’ primary source of income.  The couple did what they could to clothe their children and to put food on the table, but jobs were scarce during the Depression for any head of a household, even more so for a middle-aged man.

For the next 17 years, Mr. Stewart applied his engineering talent on an invention, a design for a rotary engine.  This didn’t escape his daughter Phyllis’s attention.  Unfortunately for the Stewarts, the automobile industry wasn’t interested in changing to a different type of engine, particularly given that the Stewart Rotary Engine was awarded its patent (U.S. Patent No. 2,373,791) while World War II was still being fought.

Mr. Stewart’s design won acclaim in newspapers around the country and in important scientific publications.  One “influential trade journal” praised the Stewart rotary design for having just three moving parts.  It said, “For years, scientists and engineers have been trying to develop a satisfactory rotary, internal-combustion engine.  Yet it has never been worked out on a practical basis.  Now Stewart has invented a rotary engine incorporating principles that are entirely new.

This significant, potentially game-changing invention may not have changed the auto industry in the 1940s, but Stewart’s inventiveness contributed importantly to Phyllis’s understanding of how the world worked in terms of free enterprise, individual discovery, self-reliance, and scientific and technological advancement.

Her father’s experience helped Phyllis clearly grasp the concept that the American patent system and the individual inventor hold central roles in a meaningful endeavor.  This showed through over the years, with her 1982 biography, Phyllis Schlafly:  The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority, observing that her “boundless — almost gushing — affection and respect for inventors undoubtedly reflected her affection and respect for her father.”

Defending the American Patent System

All these qualities, along with her organizational and political experience, came to light when President Ronald Reagan named Phyllis Schlafly to the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution (chaired by retired Chief Justice Warren E. Burger).  In that role, she made speeches and presentations on our Constitution, including the intellectual property clause in Article I, Section 8.

Soon after, changes to our patent system began to be considered and adopted, taking on aspects of foreign, weak-property-rights patent regimes and diminishing important elements of the American patent system that were designed and implemented by the Founding Fathers and proven successful based on the democratized, private property right-oriented, iconic inventor-producing, invention-stimulating patents that leapfrogged America’s standard of living.

Mrs. Schlafly wrote, “The Founding Fathers . . . understood that securing to individual inventors the right to own and market their original ideas is just as much a part of economic freedom as any other personal labor.”

It’s no wonder that the daughter of an inventor who had become a force in the nation and the Conservative Movement led conservative engagement on an issue many considered an odd fit.  And again, Mrs. Schlafly applied her formidable talents and abilities to advocating on behalf of American inventors and for the preservation of our unique patent system.

She knew her stuff, impressing young congressional counsels and lawmakers alike.  Mrs. Schlafly connected the dots of the globalist patent “harmonization” (dumbing down of our patent system) to the serious risks these departures pose to our national security, our economic competitiveness, our technological edge, and the self-sufficiency an American patent has traditionally given garage inventors a shot at.

In the 1999 American Inventors Protection Act, she worked with then, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, to ensure that the change to the publication of pending applications would not harm sensitive technologies.  Given the unsolved problem of the long backlog of unexamined applications, Mrs. Schlafly was prudent to ask for additional measures beyond existing national security prerogatives to pull applications before publication.  Sadly, the USPTO and the Commerce Department have, so far,  failed to fulfill this supplemental review mandate, as Rep. Frank Wolf highlighted in oversight and appropriations hearings with then-USPTO Director David Kappos.

In 2011, she warned, “The [America Invents Act] enable[s] Chinese hackers to steal U.S. innovation secrets while they are in development, then file an application with the U.S. Patent Office under first-to-file, and thereby own new U.S. technology instead of merely stealing it.  Owning the patents will enable China legally to take away ownership rights and profits from Americans who have actually invented these new technologies.  Defense technologies would be a prime target of this threat. “Sadly, she was proven right.  The IP Commission in February updated its report to conclude that IP theft steals over $600 billion from America’s economy each year, thanks in large part to hacking.  It also said that patent infringement is too difficult to count.

Relentlessly and tirelessly, Phyllis Schlafly fought to preserve, protect and defend the world-class patent system the Founders gave us and American inventors of all stripes have taken advantage of, to our nation’s great benefit.

Her organization, Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund, will highlight this aspect of Mrs. Schlafly’s remarkable work at a special event in Washington titled “Phyllis Schlafly:  Celebrating an Untiring Advocate of Inventors and the Economic Freedom to Invent.”  The event will feature friends and allies, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Judge Paul Michel, economist Pat Choate, Qualcomm IP counsel Laurie Self and Phyllis’s son John Schlafly.  The event takes place May 24.  For more information, contact rebekah@pseagles.com.

This is a fitting commemoration of an American icon’s lifelong devotion to a most American feature:  a democratic, property rights-based patent system that led to the creation of the iconic garage inventor who makes amazing inventions.

The Author

James Edwards

James Edwards consults on intellectual property, health care innovation, and regulatory and policy issues. Among other clients, Edwards advises the nonprofit group Eagle Forum on patent policy and is Co-Director of the Inventor's Project. He participates in the Medical Device Manufacturers Association's Patent Working Group. Edwards mentors start-ups and early-stage companies, largely in the med tech space, and is involved in several IP-centric projects.

Edwards served as Legislative Director to Rep. Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., then a member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and handled IP legislative matters. Edwards also worked on the staffs of Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. In addition, he was an association executive at the Healthcare Leadership Council. Edwards earned a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, and bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Georgia.

James Edwards

Peter Harter has over 20 years of experience bridging the ecosystems of technology, business, law, venture finance and politics by providing advice to management, boards and investors on legislation, regulation, court cases, media, standards, treaties, political campaigns, capital, property and labor. As the founder of The Farrington Group, Peter advises public and private companies, investors, startups and nonprofits on risks from legislation, regulation, court cases, standards, politics, and more. He also helps identify relationships for sales, finance and and executive recruitment. Peter’s career began in 1993 as an Internet lawyer. He broadened in Silicon Valley as head of global government affairs for Netscape and EMusic.com and in business development and sales for Securify. He deepened his experience in policy in Washington, DC, lobbying on patent reform for Intellectual Ventures. Peter has expertise in the areas of patents, copyrights, open source, cybersecurity, export controls, voting, antitrust, nuclear energy, big data, and medical research reform.

To contact Peter please connect with him via LinkedIn.

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Discuss this

There are currently 2 Comments comments.

  1. Night Writer May 19, 2017 8:16 am

    I think this is an interesting story particularly how it illustrates that experience with the system shapes a person’s views.

    Ignorance rules now with K Street presenting models of the world that are as about as real as Star Wars.

  2. step back May 21, 2017 10:03 pm

    Before this post disappears into the archaic archives of us IPWatcherdogs I want to add that I was well aware of Phyllis’s life long devotion to inventors and the patent system. She was one of the few who persistently stood up to the forces of inventor deprecation. I just didn’t know about her early history. Thanks for that.