Re: Apple thieves - what a surprise
There is some theory that one among the thousands of people who independently came up with the idea should be able get a monopoly on its implementation. If something is so obvious that no-one writes it in a technical journal, it is proof (to a patent lawyer) that the idea is unique and valuable.
Many things seem obvious after the fact. In 1996, nobody had thought of it.
I think you may misunderstand the way engineering works. It is normally small steps, but the fact that it is a small step does not mean it is obvious.
Your example of the Thermos flask actually proves my point. If it was so obvious, why had nobody done it before? Just because you can look at it now and say, "Oh, that's easy, just take this piece of equipment, add this to it, and you've got something much more useful outside the lab" does not mean it should not be patentable. As long as there wasn't another lab tech out there who independently did the same before him, it's a perfectly valid patent.
Also, the theory is not that one among those who independently has an idea gets a monopoly. It is that the first person to come up with the idea gets a monopoly in exchange for publishing his idea.
EDIT: Forgot to add, as the idea was patented, it was also published. It probably can't be proven, but how do we know that an Apple engineer had not read the patent, or about it in some tech publication, or heard about it in discussions at University?