Anyone can earn a patent and thus secure the right to profit from his or her invention. Patents are the core of the capitalist system, as they provide a financial incentive for people to be creative and thus produce something of value to everyone else. It’s been that way in the United States for nearly 300 years.

People of any age and station in life have earned patents. Kids, teenagers, and grandmothers have patented their devices, inventions, and processes. They have patented everything from nuclear power plants to waffle irons to surgical procedures. The patent system is a vibrant today as at any time in US history. In fact, the backlog of patent applications hit an all-time high in the last five years (partly due to an increase in applications, and partly due to under-funding of the US Patent Office).

To earn a patent, a person must file a fairly basic form that describes the invention and why it is unique or uniquely builds on things that have come before. Drawings and scale models or samples are welcomed, and are they commonly provided. The patent application form is remarkably unchanged from Colonial times, though, in these complex times, people tend to write applications that are much longer and detailed than in the past. The applicant must include information about similar products or processes that have already been invented, in order to help guide patent examiners towards the decision about whether the applicant truly has something that’s unique.

That’s all there is to it. The applicant does not have to show any special qualifications for his or her invention. The applicant does not have to demonstrate having worked on the invention for a particular period of time, nor having tested various options and variations of the idea. The applicant does not even have to show that the invention really works. For example, there are hundreds of patents for airplanes that were filed in the first decade of the 20th century, and the vast majority of them don’t actually fly. Inventors hoped that they could get their inventions to fly, perhaps with a few more tweaks and variations, but first they hurried to the patent office to secure their rights if their airplanes proved worthy at a later date.

Today, most patents do come from sophisticated designers, often working for large corporations. They are forever tweaking existing products and trying to improve them just enough to earn another patent, and protect their companies’ profits. But there also are thousands of solo inventors still toiling away in their garages and basements, too. And everyone once in a while, a long person or a small team come up with something truly groundbreaking – and becomes a billionaire in the process.

Maybe it will be your turn next. Start thinking and tinkering.