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Everyday IP: When were socks invented?

Dennemeyer Group / December 15, 2020
Everyday IP: When were socks invented?

When you work day and night in the trenches of Intellectual Property, it can be difficult not to think of concepts like invention and innovation outside of their oft-complex legal contexts. So many of the IP assets we help creators protect are not even physical objects, let alone practical items you can see daily. However, many times, even the most basic products that we are taking for granted — such as the socks you are likely wearing as you read this — are tied to IP. For the first installment of our "Everyday IP" blog series, we not only looked into the answer to the question "When were socks invented?" but also take you on an exciting journey back to antiquity!

A blast from the past

Precisely answering the question of when socks first appeared involves going back quite a long time ago: There is evidence to suggest that the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome all wore foot coverings along with their sandals, made of either animal skins, fur or material derived therewith (usually wool). During the time when Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE) developed the first scientific treatises on philosophy and psychology, the oldest of these knitted fabric items were created, resembling socks as we know them today. They were found where historians believe that the city of Oxyrhynchus once lay, in Middle Egypt. Did you know that the word "sock" comes from the Latin term "soccus," which means "low-heeled shoe," and the Old English "socc" (translating to "slipper" or "light shoe")?

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About two millennia would pass before socks became at all relevant to most people of the world. During much of that time, they were mostly a luxury of the wealthy, not something that the everyday laborer or farmer could afford to purchase (or find the time to knit on their own). Oddly, during the Middle Ages, socks and pants of the time were often combined to form a single piece of clothing, not all that different from stockings or tights you would see today. For some, this may bring to mind the colorful garb of the court jester or the gift-filled Christmas stocking, but at that time, many noblemen wore such garments.

Geopolitics, socks and the emergence of IP rights

It is hard to believe that patent rights, like socks, date back to approximately 500 BCE, although they were first seen in ancient Greece rather than Egypt. Even more interestingly, the primary development that would help "democratize" socks took place not long, historically speaking, after legal frameworks that would serve as the roots for modern patent law emerged.

Technical drawing of William Lee's knitting frame. The original mechanism had eight needles to the inch, which Lee later improved with 20 needles. By 1598, "he was able to knit stockings from silk and wool" but, in the end, was unable to transform his invention into a successful business. (Source: Wikipedia. Image license: CC0 1.0 Universal)

In England, before Parliament passed its Statute of Monopolies in 1623, patents were awarded on a case-by-case basis directly by the crown (as opposed to the Intellectual Property Office that handles such matters today). A clergyman named William Lee, who invented the knitting machine in 1589, went before Queen Elizabeth I to seek a patent for his revolutionary device. Unfortunately, the queen was displeased by the idea of disenfranchising tailors who knitted stockings by hand and put off by the wool garments Lee's machine created. Thus, she would not grant him the exclusive rights he sought.

As many things did in those days, the further development of socks came down to England and France's geopolitical rivalry. The latter's King Henry IV, hearing of Lee's rejection by Elizabeth I, granted the inventor an audience. Quickly realizing the idea's potential, the French monarch financially backed Lee, allowing him to build a knitting factory in Rouen. Nevertheless, Lee did not have any legal control over either the designs of socks themselves or his machine. He would, sadly, die a pauper in 1614. Other individuals adopted his pioneering techniques and started more factories, and warm, sturdy wool socks became affordable for the working class during the 17th century.

The decades that followed introduced cotton as a viable fabric for clothing production. Inventions like the cotton gin and circular loom made it possible to accelerate the processing of cotton and craft socks (and other clothing) at a massive scale. The former of those devices starkly illustrates the importance of IP rights: While historians dispute Eli Whitney's creation of the cotton gin, he was shrewd enough to seek a patent for the machine in 1793, under U.S. patent laws established just four years earlier. That is why we remember Whitney as one of the Industrial Revolution's progenitors, rather than Katherine Greene, with whom he brainstormed the device. (Ironically, counterfeiters who copied the gin en masse would financially ruin Whitney himself. While patent laws were on the books back then, enforcement of such statutes had a long way to go.)

Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, a mechanical device that removes the seeds from cotton, on March 14, 1794, and was assigned patent number 72X. Apparently, Whitney's first design was flawed and later improved by his sponsor, Mrs. Greene, but Whitney never acknowledged this publicly. (Source: Wikipedia / History).

Modern socks (and patents)

The last epochal event in the history of socks came in the 1930s — a decade marked by the debut of Scotch tape and FM radio, among other things — with the invention of nylon. Wallace Carothers and his colleagues at Du Pont synthesized the material in 1935 after several years of work, and he patented it two years later. Nylon's relevance to socks comes from its usefulness when blended with cotton: Many modern socks are made of those materials.

Today, a simple Google search for "sock patents" brings up plenty of results: knitted socks with multiple layers, unique methods of sock toe construction, waterproof socks and so on. Even the seemingly smallest attributes of these items involve ingenuity that inventors are entitled to benefit from. No matter what inventions you wish to patent, and wherever you are in the world, Dennemeyer's experts can help you secure your IP rights.




袜子第一次出现在什么时候?为了准确回答这个问题,需要追溯到很久以前:有证据表明,埃及、希腊和罗马的文明古国都穿着脚套和凉鞋,这些脚套都是由动物皮、毛皮或由此衍生的材料(通常是羊毛)制成的。在亚里士多德(公元前 384 年 - 公元前 322 年)编写第一部关于哲学和心理学科学论文的时期,最古老的类似针织物的袜子被创造出来。此外,“袜子”这个词来自于拉丁语“soccus”(译为“低跟鞋”)和古英语“socc”(译为“拖鞋”或“轻便鞋”)。



我们很难相信像袜子这样的专利权可以追溯到大约公元前 500 年,尽管它们最早出现在古希腊而非埃及。更有趣的是,从历史上看,有助于“民主化”袜子的主要发展,其实是在作为现代专利法根基的法律框架出现后不久才发生的。

威廉·李的针织机技术图。威廉·李李发明的机器由最初的每英寸 8 根针改良为后来的20 根针。到 1598 年,“他能够用丝绸和羊毛编织长袜”,可最终还是无法将他的发明转化为成功的事业。(来源:维基百科。图像许可:CC0 1.0 Universal)

在英国1623 年议会通过其垄断法之前,专利是由王室直接逐案授予的(而非今天处理此类事务的知识产权局)。一位名叫威廉·李的牧师于 1589 年发明了针织机,于是他来到伊丽莎白女王一世面前准备为他的革命性发明申请专利。不幸的是,由于威廉·李能用机器制造羊毛服装,从而剥夺了用手工编织长袜的裁缝的权利,女王因此感到非常不满。结果,她没有授予威廉·李所申请的专利权。

袜子的进一步发展,正如当时的很多事一样,都可以归结为英法的地缘政治竞争。法国国王亨利四世听说李被伊丽莎白一世拒绝后,便邀请接见这位发明家。法国君主很快意识到这个想法的潜力,于是在经济上大支持威廉·李,允许他在鲁昂建立一家针织厂。然而,威廉·李对袜子本身或他的机器的设计没有任何法律控制权。更不幸的是,他于 1614 年默默离开了人世。而其他人采用了他的开创性技术并开设了更多工厂。由此,到了 17 世纪,工人阶级也可以买得起温暖牢固的羊毛袜。

随后的几十年里,棉花成为了一种可行的服装生产面料。 轧棉机和圆织机等发明使得大规模加速棉花和工艺袜(和其他服装)的加工成为可能。 前者鲜明地说明了知识产权的重要性:虽然历史学家对伊莱·惠特尼发明的轧棉机提出异议,但他足够精明,在 1793 年根据仅四年前制定的美国专利法为这台机器申请了专利。 这就是为什么我们记得惠特尼是工业革命的先驱之一,而不是凯瑟琳格林,其实他与凯瑟琳格林一起集思广益了此设备。 (具有讽刺意味的是,大量仿制轧棉机的造假者却在经济上毁了惠特尼本人。虽然当时专利法已经制定成文,但此类法规的执行还有很长的路要走。)

伊莱·惠特尼于 1794 年 3 月 14 日为轧棉机(一种从棉花中去除种子的机械装置)申请了专利,并获得了专利号 72X。当时,惠特尼的第一版设计是有缺陷的,后来由他的赞助商格林夫人进行了改进,但惠特尼从未公开承认过这一点。(来源:维基百科/历史


袜子历史上的最后一次划时代事件发生在 20世纪30 年代——这十年的标志,是透明胶带和调频收音机的问世,以及尼龙的发明。华莱士·卡罗瑟斯和他的杜邦同事经过几年的努力,于 1935 年合成了这种材料,并在两年后申请专利。由此,尼龙与棉能混纺和袜子息息相关,现代有袜子都是由这些材料制成的。

今天,当我们在网络上搜索“袜子专利”,就会看见很多关于袜子的分类:多层针织袜子、独特的袜头构造方法、防水袜子等等。即便是这些看似最小的属性,发明者也有权从中得到相关权益。无论什么时间,无论您身在何处,需要为哪种发明申请专利,Dennemeyer 的专家都可基于成熟的法律法规,以及更多专业知识和技能,帮您保护您的知识产权,享受到应有的权益。

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