Touch screen patents: What was the the first? and what could be the greatest?

Initially published 8 August 8 2017, minor updates 7 October 2019.

I have recently had the pleasure of reading the new and excellent book by Brian Merchant "The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone" (2017), which really is the history of touch screen phones in general.

The author goes into great depth into many aspects of the iPhone, and includes a few references to patent in general. For example, we learn that the earliest known patent for a mobile phone dates back to 1917, being Danish patent 22091, filed by the prolific Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt (the book lists 'DK22901', but this would not be the first recorded patent number with transposed digits).

However one of the most fascinating parts was about the touchscreen, one of the iPhones greatest advances. No, Apple did not invent the touchscreen, not by a long shot, but they advanced it a long way and added multi-touch capabilities to it.


So who did invent the touch screen? and Who invented multi-touch?

The book does touch on both areas. The first touch screen patent was thought to be filed by Eric Johnson. an engineer for the Royal Radar Establishment in England. This patent was first filed as GB117222 Touch Displays back in 1965, and later published as US3482241 in 1969. This patent disclosed a touchscreen that was developed to assist air traffic controllers to manage aircraft traffic, and according to the iPhone book remained in use until the 1990s.


The value of finding key patents such as this is twofold - it can help acknowledge the inventor - and can be used to find other relevant patents in the field. And for this, we will use the Ambercite Ai patent analytics software. In this case, we will use US3482241 to understand these sorts of questions:

  • Was there an earlier touch screen patent?

  • What were the best patents that followed this?


What was the prior art to the first touch screen patent?

Running such as a search is remarkably easy. We set up the query within Ambercite Ai as follows:

And this will produce a list of prior art patents, ranked according to similarity to the starting patent, with the five most similar patents shown below (click on the image for an interactive version).

This query produced 100 patents in total. Top of the list for similarity was US3207905, filed by General Electric for a Touch-sensitive optoelectronic circuits and indicators. While similar in concept, this was more about buttons than screens. 

Similarly, while we have not reviewed all 75 prior art documents in detail., we did review the most similar patents and considered the titles of the remaining patents - and it does appear that Mr Johnson is indeed the inventor for the touch screen.

And for another perspective

Check out what US3482241 looks like in the middle of an interactive patent network at the Amberscope link found here.


What were the best touchscreen patents to follow?

 Again, this can be a simple query, based on looking for similar patents filed after US3482241. Again we might look for the most similar 100 patents:

But how can we assess these patents? Ambercite has developed a metric called Amberscore, which predicts the importance of patents based on the number, strength and age of its citation connections. 1 is the average Ambercscore value for US patents, and the vast majority of patents have Amberscore values less than 2. 

But not in this set - instead we find three patents with Amberscore values in excess of 200! - so very important patents indeed. As an analogy, this would be like reviewing a list of bank accounts, and coming across the bank balance of Bill Gates (again click on this for an interactive version).

Third on the list, with an Amberscore of 149, is US6323846, filed by the University of Delaware in 1999 for a Method and apparatus for integrating manual input. This patent has the listed inventors of Wayne Westerman and John Elias, and includes a claim for:

7. A multi-touch surface apparatus for detecting a spatial arrangement of multiple touch devices on or near the surface of the multi-touch apparatus comprising....

The iPhone book discuses Wayne Westerman in depth. By all accounts he is a very interesting innovator. Wayne grew up with a mother who had chronic pain, and Wayne himself suffered from RSI from his university days onwards, which made typing very painful. A born tinkerer, he ended up doing post graduate work at the University of Delaware for his supervisor John Elias, initially starting in the area of artificial intelligence.

Waynes' response to his RSI was to develop a key free, gesture recognising keypad.

Building the keypad was one thing - he also developed what was to be a whole library of gestures, which were duly programmed. This work led to a patent and a startup, Fingerworks, which went to develop and sell its 'Touchscreen' multitouch  keyboard,


As well as the 'iGesture pad' :


These products won a number of awards and had growing sales - before Fingerworks was bought by Apple in 2005 and promptly shut down. Westerman was hired by Apple, and has not said much since, no doubt bound by Apple employment polices. However, he is still inventing - a search for Apple patents listing Westerman as the inventor uncovered 641 patents in 104 families, the most recent filed in February 2017.


 Based on its technical contribution, is US6323846 the greatest touch screen patent filed? 'Greatest' is a subjective question of course - but this patent does have an exceptional Amberscore value, and discloses a big advance in multi-touch technology.

Regardless of how we might rank other patents, there is no doubt that Westerman, whether at the University of Delaware, Fingerworks or Apple has made a huge contribution to the world of touch screens

Mike Lloyd