The U.S. government's secret inventions

FAS acting President Steven Aftergood points to two particular examples that illustrate issues with the current invention-secrecy regime. The first is solar panels. An initially classified document from 1971 reveals that the Army, the Air Force, and NASA all considered “solar photovoltaic generators” possibly worth restricting. “While these might potentially have military applications for space systems, they could obviously also have significant nonmilitary applications,” says Aftergood.

The second example is much more banal but better indicative of how absurd the system can be. Defense agencies periodically rescind secrecy orders, therefore allowing previously restricted patents to be publicly issued. In 2000, USPTO finally issued a patent that was filed back in 1936. And what was the invention so threatening to national security that it couldn’t be made public for 64 years? A cryptograph used to manually code and decode messages—technology that was decades out-of-date by 2000. “It’s historically interesting, but hardly breathtaking,” says Aftergood.