The USPTO web site requires non-intuitive searches that look like "icn/DE" in order to search for an inventor from Germany. In contrast, Google Patents is as easy to use as Google. Type in "Germany" and you find all inventors from Germany.
The only shortcoming is the Google Patent images were created using less than perfect optical character recognition: some of the text is not translated well from the image to searchable text. In Google's defense, there are literally hundreds of thousands of applications on file and it had to be a monumental task to get them online.
Even if you aren't interested in the detailed and quite technical description of the invention, learn to read patent documents and you'll find useful genealogical information. A patent application consists of an abstract, a drawing, a written description, and claims.
The names of witnesses appear on the drawing and description. Witnesses are at least one attorney and two other individuals known to the inventor who vouch that the patent is for a concept the inventor has the right to claim as his or her own.
As an example, let's take a look at the patent information for one of my husband's relatives who invented a farm gate. Obviously, a farm gate is not the most exciting invention in the database but let's take a look at the USPTO database through the eyes of a genealogist.
Go to Google Patents at http://www.google.com/patents and do a search for the surname Imig. The fourth entry reads "Fakm-Gate," an example of the shortcomings of the OCR. This patent was assigned the number 954296. This means that, by 1910, there were already 954,296 patent applications!
Click on the above entry and you will see the patent summary with the filing and issue dates. A genealogist recognizes this means the inventor was probably alive and well on those dates.
Click on the abstract and you'll find that the first paragraph of every abstract begins, "Be it know that I . . . " Next comes the inventor's legal name and place of residence including city, county, and state. According the patent application, our subject was Jacob P. Imig, and he was residing in San Jose in Mason County, Illinois on January 4, 1910.
At the bottom of the application, you'll find the names of two witnesses. The witnesses on this application were H. H. Van Loram and Bert Shawgo. Now you have evidence of two other individuals who knew your subject and were at the location mentioned in 1910.
At the bottom of the diagram, you will find the Jacob P. Imig's name added by the person who created the drawing.
There are also at least two witnesses who have signed the diagram in their own hand. Be sure to look at their names. They are not necessarily the same as the abstract witnesses.
In this example, the witnesses appear to be V. B. Hillyard and someone with the surname of Tolson. The attorney is Victor J. Evans. If the witnesses or the attorney are someone you are researching, you will have found their signature in their own hand! That is something unique that researchers don't often have an opportunity to find.
Now that you have learned the basics for using Google Patents as a tool, let's expand our skills. Often inventors apply for patents for more than one invention. Once you have discovered an inventor, search on their full name. In our example, expand the search to "Jacob Imig."
You'll find several hits including patent 1012256, for a door-latch. Jacob's address information remains the same, but different witnesses signed the abstract. One of witnesses listed on the drawing for this invention appeared on the farm-gate patent. But a different attorney and second witness signed this patent drawing. This expands Jacob's circle of known contacts.
Find one inventor and it seems you may find more in the same location - and they appear to rub shoulders. In this example, it is probably not surprising that in a village of less than 700 residents in 2000 local inventors might know each other.
Peter Imig, a relative of Jacob P. Imig, signed as a witness to the patent application filed by another local resident, John D. Smith. Another of Jacob's relatives, Ernest Imig, signed as witness to Charles L. Frevert's patent for railway-ties in nearby Minier, Illinois, in 1909. Ernest and another family member, Valentin Imig, Sr., both signed as witnesses for a portable grain dump and elevator patent Ernst and Henry V. Schroeder had applied for in 1903 and a wagon-jack they applied for in 1907.
Even though these are patents are filed with the USPTO, the database includes patents filed by inventors from other countries who, for whatever reason, want to patent their invention in the United States. At present, there are nearly 250,000 patents in this database held by German residents alone. Type in any country name in Google Patents and you'll find the country of residence for inventors at the time of their application.
Of course, you can combine terms, just like searching the entire web with Google. You can type for "Imig" and "Illinois," for example, if you want to narrow down your search.
As you can see, you can do searches on locations, invention names and on the names of witnesses, all of which can broaden your genealogical searches. Be sure to add Google Patents to your researcher's toolbox.