To perform a preliminary patent search:
You can find additional information at http://www.uspto.gov/products/library/ptdl/services/step7.jsp
Technical dictionaries and reference books can help you identify useful search terms related to your concept.
U.S. patents (including full-text) can be searched from any internet-connected computer with limited Boolean operators on the USPTO web site:
"Google is a very significant player in the world of patent searching now. They have accomplished something that no other patent office, or to my knowledge, any of the for-fee patent databases have done, which is to have made nearly all US and European patent documents available in searchable full-text. However, they have used optical character recognition to create digital full text from the TIFF images of the old paper documents, and this has not been perfect. The oldest patents were hand-written, usually in very fancy script that can not be perfectly transcribed by OCR algorithms. It has also recently been pointed out that thousands of patents are actually missing from the Google database. Also of importance is that classification searching on Google is completely unreliable."
-from an interview with Martin Wallace, Science & Engineering Librarian at the University of Maine, Orono, who serves as Maine’s only representative to the Patent and Trademark Resource Center (PTRC).
Google's Advanced Patent Search is a user-friendly place for casual exploration of patents. Improve your results by using it as a source of keywords and classification numbers for further searching with the USPTO databases.
Elihu Burritt Library
(access via Harold Lewis Drive)
Central Connecticut State University, 1615 Stanley Street, New Britain, CT 06050