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Editor’s note: Once again, your friendly neighborhood Trivia Geek is on surprise sabbatical, so we’ve dusted off this Classic Geek from our archives, which originally ran Jan. 20, 2004. Look for a fresh batch of trivia on Feb. 9, 2005.

While it’s not an obvious source of comedy, internationally-recognized patent law is actually a rather funny thing. Just ask Danish engineer and inventor Karl Kroyer, whose method of raising sunken vessels from the ocean floor failed to obtain a patent because of a comic strip.

The German patent office denied Kroyer’s claim based on the patent law concept of “prior art,” which essentially means you can’t patent an idea that someone has publicly described in the past, even if that idea wasn’t patented.

For example, you can’t copy a recipe from a television cooking show and patent it, even if the show’s creators hold no patent or trademark for the recipe. The show itself is the “prior art” and proves that you didn’t invent the recipe yourself.

However, that doesn’t mean that if one show offers one recipe for apple pie, no one else can ever patent any other apple pie recipes. Prior art covers only specific ideas, and any apple pie recipe you attempt to patent would just need to be reasonably different from any published and patented method to receive its own patent protection.

What constitutes a reasonable difference requires a great deal of research and some discretion on the part of patent authorities (thus the term “patent pending”).

Of course, it’s still somewhat surprising that a comic strip could be introduced as “prior art” evidence against an applied method of raising sunken naval vessels, but that’s just what happened to Kroyer’s idea in 1964.


What comic strip was used as “prior art” evidence to deny a patent claim to a ship-raising method devised by Danish engineer Karl Kroyer?

The strip was none other than a Donald Duck story published in 1949 that saw the famous Walt Disney character raise his Uncle Scrooge’s sunken yacht employing a method staggeringly similar to Kroyer’s–so similar that an urban legend has since surfaced that the comic strip itself was the inspiration for Kroyer’s idea. The legend is untrue, but the mistake is understandable, given just how alike the methods seem to be.

In 1964, the freighter Al-Kuwait sunk off the shores of Kuwait, drowning a cargo of several thousand sheep and trapping their carcasses beneath the surface of Kuwait’s primary source of drinking water. Engineers needed to raise the ship as quickly as possible to prevent the decomposing sheep from poisoning the water supply, and no floating crane was easily available.

Kroyer was working with German chemical firm BASF, which charged him with finding a solution. Kroyer’s ingenious idea was to pump the freighter full of polystyrene foam balls, comprised mostly of air, which would increase the buoyancy of the ship and force it to the surface.

The technique worked wonderfully, but when BASF applied for a patent on the method, researching authorities discovered the Donald Duck story, “The Sunken Yacht,” which depicted an eerily similar method of ship-raising. In the comic story, Donald uses plastic ping-pong balls, fed through a tube into the ship’s hull, to lift the titular vessel in a fashion very much like engineers pumped the polystyrene foam balls into the Al-Kuwait’s hull.

As such, the German patent office deemed Kroyer’s method insufficiently novel to earn patent protection, but companies have nonetheless reliably employed it to raise ships several times since its 1964 debut in the real world–or its first appearance in the funny papers.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from TechRepublic member HollowMatt, who took issue with the remark I made about the dissolution of the Bell telephone system in the Jan. 12 edition of Geek Trivia, “Name the time and place.”

“Although it may no longer exist in the [United States] as such, there is still a Bell phone system in Canada.”

So there is, dear reader. Apparently, Arthur C. Clarke foresaw the Canadian phone system as becoming the dominant interplanetary communication system of the 21st century. And you thought it was all maple syrup and hockey up there!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.