Not since the 1960s has the Supreme Court heard so many high-profile patent cases. Before the end of the term, the Court will rule on eBay's use of another company's patented Buy It Now function. Another big case examines the patentability of diagnostic testing, and a third case in the pipeline could rethink the standard the Court set in 1983 to test the obviousness of what is patentable--a case that could call into question the validity of hundreds of thousands of existing patents. So to prepare you for smart discussions with colleagues about the history of patent law, we prepared this timeline.

1774 Eli Whitney is awarded a colonial patent for the cotton gin. Over the next few decades he tries (and fails) to get courts to stop infringement.

1836 The brand-new Patent Office awards its first patent to (who else?) the senator from Maine who wrote the law that created the office.

1842 The first design patent is granted to George Bruce for a style of printing type.

1852 Charles Goodyear pays a record legal fee to Daniel Webster to help him win a lawsuit concerning his patent on vulcanized rubber.

1888 A suit over the telephone patent produces the longest written opinions in Supreme Court history.

1964 The Court rules that companies cannot write royalty agreements that extend beyond the life of a patent.

1966 The Court rules that you can't patent a method that has not been proved to produce a product that actually works.

1969 The Court rules that a petitioner can challenge a patent even after licensing it and paying royalties to use it.

1977 In a sure sign that the sphere of what is considered patentable has expanded, the comb-over is patented.

1980 The Court decides that manmade microbes are patentable; patents for software and business methods follow.

2001 The Court upholds the legitimacy of patents on hybrid and genetically modified plants, such as insect-resistant corn.

2006 The Patent Office's backlog is such that even if it refused new applications, it would take two years to catch up.