It may be just August 17 to you, but in the sex-tech world, or at least the U.S. portion of that world, it’s a day of celebration. Today marks the expiration of a patent for a “Method and Device for Interactive Virtual Control of Sexual Aids Using Digital Computer Networks,” also known as Patent 268, also known as “the Stupid Patent,” also known as the teledildonics patent.
Happy teledildonics freedom day everyone!
— Internet of Dongs (@internetofdongs) August 17, 2018
Technically speaking, the patent was assigned the number 6,368,268, but friends and foes alike usually refer to it by its last three digits. The patent application was filed on August 17, 1998, by three men, Warren J. Sandvick, Jim W. Hughes, and David Alan Atkinson, who in 2015 sold the patent to Tzu Technologies, LLC (“a company of passionate innovators”), which, as Samantha Cole reports in Motherboard, “immediately flipped it into a trolling effort.”
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends civil liberties in the digital world, Tzu Technologies began suing sex-toy manufacturers for patent infringement, relying on a “ridiculously broad” claim that was “nothing more than the idea of teledildonics, dressed up in ‘input devices,’ ‘signals’ and ‘interfaces’.” Several of the defendants had to pay $50,000 each to Tzu. (Kickstarter was sued by Tzu in 2015 for hosting a crowdfunding campaign for a teledildonic device. It fought back, and won.) It was clear, the EFF asserted, “that this patent, regardless of its exciting subject matter, deserves to be called stupid.” The foundation gave the patent its uncoveted Stupid Patent of the Month award in July 2015.
That, in brief, is the legal history of Patent 268. But what of the semantic history?
Neither teledildonics nor dildonics appears in the patent application, although both words were in (limited) circulation at the time of its filing. Dildonics had been coined in 1974 by Theodor Holm Nelson in a manifesto titled Computer Lib/Dream Machines. (Nelson also takes credit for inventing the hyperlink and for coining hypertext and micropayment, among other terms.) Nelson blended dildo — which, as John Kelly reported here in 2017, was used by Shakespeare and may be related to the Italian diletto or deletto, meaning “delight” — with the suffix of electronics in a passing reference to the work of How Wachspress, a Brooklyn-born inventor. In 1972, according to an SF Weekly article published in 2015, Wachspress introduced a device “he and others have variously called an Auditac Sonic Stimulator, a Teletac, a Sonic Dildo, or (per his 1973 patent application) an ‘Audiotactile Stimulation and Communication System’.” Wachspress demonstrated the device at Sexual Attitude Restructuring seminars held in the basement of San Francisco’s Glide Church. (Yes, Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, named not for a lubricant but for millionaire cattleman H.L. Glide, whose widow Lizzie in 1929 purchased the land on which the church was later built.)
Teledildonics first appeared in print in 1990, in an article by the cultural critic Howard Rheingold for Mondo 2000, a Berkeley-based cyberculture magazine published between 1989 and 1998 and revived as an online-only magazine in 2017. The article, titled “Teledildonics: Reach Out and Touch Someone,” opened with an unattributed limerick:
There was a young man named Racine
Who invented a fucking machine.
Concave or convex, it fit either sex,
and was exceedingly simple to clean.
(Rheingold later published the article in slightly edited forms in other publications, including a collection of essays by various authors titled The Postmodern Presence, in which he attributes a similar limerick to John von Neumann, the Hungarian-American mathematician who contributed to the Manhattan Project. As another rhyming mathematician, Tom Lehrer, would say: “Smut! I love it.”)
“The first fully functional teledildonics system will be a communication device, not a sex machine,” Rheingold predicted in his first sentence. “You will not use erotic telepresence technology in order to have sex with machines. Twenty years from now, when portable telediddlers are ubiquitous, people will use them to have sex with other people, at a distance, in combinations and configurations undreamt of by precybernetic voluptuaries. Through the synthesis of virtual reality technology and telecommunication networks, you will be able to reach out and touch someone — or an entire population — in ways humans have never before experienced.”
Alas, although Rheingold was good at predicting many things, he didn’t predict the advent of the Stupid Patent and its trolls. Today, however, we are free to dream his dream once again. Companies with names like MysteryVibe, Intimuse, and, yes, FookVR, are “preparing to bounce back,” write Hallie Lieberman and Maxine Lynn in Ozy. Soon we’ll all be singing along with that Elizabethan balladeer, set to a techno beat:
With a dildo, with a diddle diddle dildo,
with a diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle dildo,
with a dildo, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle dildo.