The Inventor Notebook
Why You Should Keep One

    I am compelled to talk about the inventor notebook. I mentioned in a previous article on the invention process that an indispensable part of that process is a disciplined approach to documenting your work - not just for others - but for yourself.

    I am supposed to tell you at this point that keeping a good inventor notebook is critical for legal reasons. Actually I believe the legal reasons for keeping an inventor notebook are pretty far down the list of reasons you should use one. But I will get to the legal reasons also.

    Most of my most important reasons for recommending the use of a good inventor notebook have to do with the use of notebooks to document, guide, and enrich your thinking. We all like to think that we keep all of our good ideas in our heads. Nonsense. We forget 90% of out ideas within 36 hours of dreaming them up.

    Inventor Notebooks, if you use them well, provide you with complete documentation of all the work you do, and how it was done. They give you a place to record the outcome of your experiments, including not only hard data, but any charts, graphs, etc. that you choose to paste in the notebook. The alternate of distributing your results across multiple notebooks, caffeine laced brain cells, computer files, and Post-It notes is a very poor alternate.

    And most importantly - your best interpretation of the meaning of those results may occur while you are doing that work and should (must) be entered into the notebook at that point before you forget it. You should constantly remind yourself to write down your musings as to the meaning of the work in your notebook - again - not for legal reasons, but because it helps your thought process.

    The act of writing clarifies thoughts and encourages sound thinking. Recording all of your ideas in a common repository corrals those ideas and the constant re-visiting of those ideas helps you to gather somewhat random thoughts into patterns - and patterns can become a hypothesis. Creative ideas are often come from the accumulation of fragments of ideas.

    What to Record

    So what do you record in the inventor notebook?

    Just about everything.

    Here is a thought starting list - don't let the list scare you -they may not all apply to your work.

      o Any idea, and whose idea it was

      o A description of the problem the idea solves

      o A description of how the idea can be implemented

      o Purpose of any experiment or test

      o What was done, when it was done, and who did it

      o Results (positive or negative)

      o Conclusions drawn

      o Plans for future experiments

      o Key to abbreviations and special terms used

      o Related activities - eg. meetings with customers or vendors

      o Lab meeting discussions-with record of who made which suggestions

      o Recording of discussion with outside consultants o Notes on papers, books, or patents you have read

      o Speculations on problems and solutions, random ideas as they come up

      o Descriptions of tests, including

      o test results and explanation

      o preferred operating conditions

      o control conditions

      o operable and preferred ranges of conditions

      o alternate specific materials

      o photographs or sketches of the results or the test device

      o raw data from recording instruments

      o drawings

      o charts

      o computer printouts

      o any other supporting data

      o reference and location of any document too large to include in notebook

    Inventor Notebook Management

      Enter the starting date on the first page

      Make entries in chronological order

      Do not skip pages

      Use ink

      Do not modify previous entries*

      Sign and date (MM/DD/YR) every page as completed

      Have each page witnessed as soon as possible. By non-participants.

    * The discovery of mistakes in notebooks is not uncommon. When you find one simply describe and correct it on your current page and refer to the page number where the mistake was found. Do not go back and modify the already signed page.

    The Notebook Itself

    It should be bound (no spiral or loose-leaf). For your convenience it should lay flat. Numbered pages. Although not mandatory you can get notebooks that already have a section at the bottom that reads "Read and Understood By:"; with space for two people to sign and date. I also prefer that it have cross-hatched pages so you can easily sketch illustrative graphs.

    You can find them on the web - you can usually find them in most college bookstores.