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FOWLER v. HONORBILT PRODS.

September 3, 1941

FOWLER et al.
v.
HONORBILT PRODUCTS, Inc.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: KIRKPATRICK

This is a suit for the infringement of Patent No. 1,565,267, issued December 15, 1925, to Fowler, for an upholstery pad. The only defense is invalidity for want of invention.

The patent has a single claim, which is as follows: "A pad for upholstery made up of a fabric backing overlaid by a multiplicity of thin veils of dry carded, long and wavy sisal fibre, said veils being successively superposed upon each other with the fibres of successive layers crossing each other at an angle so as to form a springy unfelted pad and said pad being stitched to the backing."

 Pads of this kind are used to overlie the helical springs of inner spring mattresses and upholstery. Before the patent in suit there were in use upholstery pads consisting of bats stitched to reinforcing sheets. Bats had been made of cotton, jute and other soft fibres, and hair and sponge rubber had also been used in the pads, but never sisal. Cotton bats were the commonest and were in general use. The difficulty with cotton, as with all the soft fibre pads, is expressed as well in the patent specification as anywhere: "As heretofore constructed, such pads have been made up of a felted mass of fibre, cotton and curled hair being very commonly used and they have lacked in resiliency and also in use tend to sink into the spaces in and between the springs and to become lumpy and uneven." Clark, executive engineer of the Chrysler Corporation, a witness, supplemented this statement: "The difficulty with the cotton was the excessively short fibre which you had * * * in the jostling, and in the movement that you got on a road -- broke these fibres up continually. The cotton was broken, and then it would ball up and become uncomfortable in the cushion. That was the thing that was wrong with that. * * * Cotton will pack * * * that is the thing we tried to get away from." Of course, nothing gives a used car a more dilapidated air than broken down upholstery with the outlines of the springs showing.

 The sisal pad solved this difficulty. Sponge rubber also obviated it, but it is expensive and sisal is cheap. The sisal pad is now used in 35% to 40% of all automobiles manufactured in this country, which, in view of Mr. Clark's testimony that "everybody in the business tried to bring in something to get around this patent," is pretty good.

 The characteristics of sisal were, of course, matters of common knowledge, and loose sisal had been tried by upholsterers in an effort to make better pads. These were of little or no use, because, in order to get the particular structure required to resist the spring thrust it was necessary to have a pad of superposed veils with the fibres laid lengthwise, the veils crossing and recrossing diagonally.

 This type of veil had already been disclosed and had been used in making pads of cotton. Why were not the method and the sisal fibre combined prior to Fowler's patent? Fowler testified, "I think there was a circumstance there of the people in the soft fibre business knew nothing about hard fibre, and those in the hard fibre business knew nothing about the soft fibre. And I was fortunate enough to have been closely or intimately connected with both soft fibres and hard fibres." He developed his pad by taking the hard-fibred sisal, making the necessary adjustments upon the machinery which had been used for carding and lapping soft-fibred cotton, and carding and lapping the sisal by means of it. No one, prior to his time, imagined that sisal could be treated in this manner. Apparently, no one knew that sisal was cardable. Inquiring of an imaginary person possessed of all the knowledge which the art had prior to Fowler, one might be told, "Sisal would be a good material to use, but the pad has to be made in a certain way for spring upholstery, and you cannot make it of sisal because sisal cannot be carded and lapped." Fowler did not accept this view, but after some experimentation found that sisal could be used.

 It may not have been a matter of great difficulty to adapt the machinery then in existence, but the idea that it could be done, reduced to practice, was, in my opinion, invention. As the Circuit Court of Appeals said in Gilbert Spruance Co. v. Ellis-Foster Co., 3 Cir., 114 F.2d 771, 773, "He [the inventor] seized upon a thing which was available to all but had been grasped by none."

 It cannot be seriously disputed that the patent made a real improvement, particularly in the heavy duty upholstery used in automobiles, eliminating one important cause of deterioration and extending the useful life of all kinds of inner spring upholstery and mattresses, and that it has had a very substantial measure of commercial success.

 Simple as the improvement over the prior art is, I think, that it was a step definitely beyond what could be expected of the worker reasonably skilled in the art.

 The question remains whether the patent runs foul of either of two rules of the patent law, frequently asserted against validity, the rule with respect to substitution of materials, and the rule with respect to old or exhausted combinations.

 My conclusion is that neither of these rules can be applied to avoid this patent, otherwise valid.

 As to the first rule. There is more involved here than mere substitution of materials. There is also a change in construction and mechanical operation. While it is convenient to think of the pad as an integral thing, it is actually made up of a number of separate fibres. The fibres of which a paid of sisal is composed are long enough to bridge the circular open tops of the springs and by so doing resist the tendency of the pad to slip down in and between the springs. The cotton fibres are too short, and the cotton "has got to support the edge, or whatever it is, by a sort of felted adhesive force." Furthermore the sisal fibres are hard and slippery, while the cotton fibres are soft and more or less adhesive. Pressure on the upholstery causes the sisal fibres to slide over one another, making it always resilient, whereas the cotton simply packs and soon loses its resiliency. Thus, the broad statement that this is a case of substitution of new material, even if verbally correct, does not tell the whole story. There really is an entirely different physical construction involved which is quite apparent to anyone who cares to pick apart a sisal and a cotton pad, and a different mechanical interaction of separate elements within the pad itself.

 Even if this were a true case of substitution of materials I do not think the rule would void the patent. Any careful statement of the rule is always accompanied by the exception that has been stated in Smith v. Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Co., 93 U.S. 486, 496, 23 L. Ed. 952: "* * * where there is some new and useful result, where a machine has acquired new functions and useful properties, it may be patentable as an invention, though the only change made in the machine has been supplanting one of its materials by another." In a Third Circuit case, Werk v. Parker, 231 F. 121, the change was from camel's hair to horse hair mats for use in the process of extracting oil from cottonseed. The Court pointed out that the felting capacity of camel's hair was an essential difference, and the patent was sustained. See, also, the following cases, all from the Third Circuit: Low v. McMaster, 266 F. 518; Hogan v. Westmoreland ...


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