What is Patent Number 139,121?

Are you teaching about the Industrial Revolution? Thinking about integrating STEM topics into your history class? Or looking for a short document analysis activity that could work for even elementary students in a remote/hybrid learning environment?

We recently published 10 new activities on DocsTeach that focus on some of the most famous patent records from our holdings. The National Archives holds millions of patent drawings from the very founding of our nation through the late 20th century.

In fact, patent protections go all the way back to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution. In it, Congress is empowered to “promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Patent laws must carefully balance the rights of the inventor to profit from his or her invention against the needs of society at large to benefit from new ideas. Inventors are given exclusive rights to their invention for a temporary amount of time (originally 14 years; currently 20 years) and can protect their intellectual property in Federal courts.

Each DocsTeach patent activity uses the White Out/Black Out tool that obscures some information from your students and asks them to scan the rest of the document to use context clues to hypothesize what the document is about. This tool is particularly useful to engage students in document analysis by turning the analysis activity into a mystery to solve. 

In some of the activities, just the invention name itself is hidden from students.  While, in others, the inventor’s or inventors’ names are also concealed if they’re famous enough to be a major clue (for instance, Thomas Edison or the Wright Brothers).

Even the title itself can add to the air of mystery. While teachers searching for the activity on DocsTeach will find “Patent Analysis: Joseph Glidden’s Barbed Wire,” students are intrigued by the more mysterious title “What is Patent Number 157,124?

DocsTeach activities that use the White Out/Black Out tool are also well suited for remote learning environments – whether students are working synchronously or asynchronously (or a combination).

For example, teachers can display an individual patent analysis activity and model appropriate document analysis with questions. 

  • Quickly scan this document. What do you notice first?
  • Describe the document and the invention it depicts as if you were explaining it to someone who can’t see it.
  • Based on what you can see, what do you think is the purpose of this invention? List evidence from the document to explain your opinion.

After some discussion and potential guesses, the teacher can provide some clues from the patent application to support their analysis. For example, from the telephone’s application:

My present invention consists in the employment of a vibratory or undulatory current of electricity in contradistinction to a merely intermittent or pulsatory current, and of a method of, and apparatus for, producing electrical undulations upon the line-wire…

After hearing some guesses and providing additional context, teachers and students can discuss the impact of the invention on the world. 

After modelling an individual activity, teachers can assign students in small groups (whether in person or using a tool like breakout rooms in Google Meets or Zoom) to complete additional patent drawing activities.  After going through the same steps of analysis, students can share their guesses and evidence with the full class. 


DocsTeach is home to hundreds of patent drawings from throughout U.S. history, including such important inventions as Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin and Michael Jackson’s Anti-Gravity Shoes. These documents come from the digitized records in the National Archives Catalog, where one can find thousands of other examples of famous patents, like Gillette’s Razor and Samuel Clemens Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments

DocsTeach Document Search for Patent
National Archives Catalog Search for Patent

You can make your own activity using the White Out/Black Out tool for any of these patents in just a few easy steps. And if you want us to add another patent record from the National Archives Catalog to DocsTeach to make an activity, just let us know!


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