And the winner is: Second Sight Medical Products, Inc., which has just received patent number 8,000,000 for a device to help people with a certain type of vision impairment see better.
Patent No. 8,000,000 is not actually the 8,000,000th patent granted in the United States. Patent No. 1 wasn't issued until 1836; the approximately 10,000 earlier patents used a different indexing system. About 8,000 of those early patents were destroyed in a fire.
In recent years, the number of patents applied for and received has skyrocketed, and the Patent Office has struggled to keep up. There are approximately 700,000 applications waiting for review. One million patents were issued in the last five years.
Here's a chart using data from Google's patent-search tool showing the number of patents issued over each 25-year period since Patent No. 1:
A recent This American Life episode examines how the patent system is abused by companies seeking to stifle competition. Such abuse raises the question of whether the patent explosion is a sign of greater innovation or of a rise in frivolous patenting.