The origins of Europe‘s patent systems may be traced to the occasional privileges issued by medieval rulers, principally to immigrant craftsmen who offered to introduce new manufactures or techniques in return for princely protection and other local benefits. These grants conferred no monopoly but encouraged artisans to settle and transmit their knowledge and know-how to native apprentices. The migration of skilled workers and engineers was the primary channel through which technology was transferred, both within and between countries. As local guilds battled to retain trade secrets exclusively for their members, privileges became weapons in the hands of rivals to lure ambitious or dissatisfied guildsmen and elicit their secrets. This cat-and-mouse game was particularly intense among the Italian city states.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Florence granted Europe‘s first exclusive patent, in 1421, to the architect Brunelleschi for the barge and hoisting gear he would use on the Arno to transport marble for his famous dome. Nor that, in 1474, Venice was the first state to regularise by statute the award of monopoly patents: by registering an invention, the patentee secured the sole benefit of its use for ten years, with a penalty of 100 ducats for infringement – except by the state which reserved its right to free use. The bill‘s opening statement encapsulated the link between mobility and innovation: Men with most acute minds able to conceive various ingenious devices reside in this City and, thanks to its greatness and tolerance, move here every day from different countries. But, artisans in search of advancement also emigrated from Venice, especially its highly skilled glassmakers, who disseminated knowledge of its patent system when they negotiated their settlement with other city states and Europe‘s rulers. One way or another, Italian influence shows like a thread in all incipient patent systems.

In England, Elizabeth‘s chief minister, William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) revived the medieval practice of awarding royal privileges to foreign artisans as a major arm of policy, extending it to Englishmen who imported new manufactures or invented new products and processes previously unknown in the kingdom. With England still lagging behind its continental neighbours in many fields of technology, import substitution was at the centre of Cecil‘s schemes: grants stipulated that goods should be cheaper than their imported equivalent, there should be no delay in implementing the new manufacture and English apprentices should receive a full training. Moreover, guilds and other established interests were consulted to avoid inflicting harm and provoking discord. Results were mixed, however: Burghley lost heart and, gradually, malpractices crept in. Elizabeth and her successor, James I, found in the issue of licences a much-needed source of patronage and revenue. Privileges could still be obtained for the introduction of foreign (and native) inventions, especially for those with influence at Court. But, more controversially, monopolies were increasingly granted where there was no innovation to courtiers and their clients, with harmful effects on both tradesmen and consumers. As a result, England came close to abolishing its nascent patent system a century and a half before the Industrial Revolution conventionally began.                                                     In 1623, with popular anger erupting against these misuses of the royal prerogative, parliament enacted  the Statute of Monopolies. Its purpose to prevent further such abuse, the Statute specifically preserved the monopoly privileges granted to inventors and to importers of invention. Section 6 limited patents of invention to a fourteen-year term, to new manufactures within this realm  and to their true and first inventor, excluding anything illegal or deemed harmful to the state or the public interest. Their validity could be tried at common law.                                                                                               For the next two and a quarter centuries, until the passage of the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852, this clause of exemption provided the fundamental legislative basis of the English patent system. Charles I, even more desperate for revenue, contrived to ignore the Statute, with the result that the patent system was totally discredited and effectively dismantled by the Long Parliament in 1640. Monopoly  had become a highly emotive word, and retains its pejorative force to this day. At the Restoration, the patent system was re-established under the watchful eye of public and parliament. While the later Stuarts often sailed close to the wind (courtiers and office-holders received preferential treatment, and patents might be over-ridden by subsequent grants or disallowed because they jeopardised royal revenues), the regular fiscal exploitation of patents was not revived. On the other hand, there is no evidence of the use of the system as an industrial policy tool as in Burghley‘s period. The routine administration of the English patent system was the epitome of laissez-faire. It registered the inventor‘s claim and took his money (lots of it), but left the question of his reward to the market and the business of regulating or enforcing the patent to the litigation of the civil courts.


The origins of patents for invention are obscure and no one country can claim to have been the first in the field with a patent system. However, Britain does have the longest continuous patent tradition in the world. Its origins came from the 15th century, when the Crown started making specific grants of privilege to manufacturers and traders.Open letters marked with the King's Great Seal called Letters Patent, signified such grants. Henry VI granted the earliest known English patent for invention to Flemish-born John of  Utynam in 1449. The patent gave John a 20-year monopoly for a method of making stained glass, required for the windows of Eton College that had not been previously known in England.

Tudors and Stuarts

The first monopolies for trades and manufacturers.

In   the time of the Tudors, it became common practice for the Crown to grant monopolies for trades and manufacturers,   including patents for invention. From 1561 to 1590, Elizabeth I granted about 50 patents whereby the recipients were enabled to exercise monopolies in the manufacture and sale of commodities such as soap,   saltpetre, alum, leather, salt, glass, knives, sailcloth, sulphur, starch, iron and paper.

Under   Elizabeth I and her successor James I, the granting of monopolies for particular commodities became   increasingly subject to abuse. It was common for grants to be made for inventions and trades that were   not new. In some instances, grants were made to royal favourites for the purpose of replenishing royal   coffers.

In 1610, James I was forced by mounting judicial   criticism and public outcry to revoke all previous patents and declare in his "Book of Bounty"   that 'monopolies are things contrary to our laws' and "we expressly command that no suitor presume   to move us". He stated an exception to this ban for "projects of new invention so they be   not contrary to the law, nor mischievous to the State".

The   doctrine of the public interest was introduced into the patent system and the words were incorporated   into  the Statute of Monopolies of 1624. Section 6 of the Statute rendered illegal all monopolies except   those "for the term of 14 years or under hereafter to be made of the sole working or making of   any manner of new manufactures within this Realm to the true and first inventor".

The 18th century

The requirement for a specification.

In the   200 years after the Statute of Monopolies, the patent system developed through the work of lawyers and   judges in the courts without government regulation.

In the   reign of Queen Anne, the law officers of the Crown established as a condition of grant that "the   patentee must by an instrument in writing describe and ascertain the nature of the invention and the   manner in which it is to be performed".

James Puckle's  1718 patent for a machine gun was one of the 1st to be required to provide a "specification".   The famous patent of Arkwright for spinning machines became void for the lack of an adequate specification   in 1785, after it had been in existence for 10 years.

Extensive   litigation on Watt's 1796 patent for steam engines set out the important principle that valid patents   could be granted for improvements in a known machine. It also established that a patent was possible   for an idea or principle, even though the specification might be limited to bare statements of such   improvements or principles, provided they come into effect, or were "clothed in practical application".

The 19th century

The industrial revolution and beyond.

Britain's patent system served the country well during the dramatic technological changes of the industrial revolution. However, by the mid-19th century it had become extremely inefficient. The Great Exhibition of 1851 accelerated demands for patent reform.

Up to that time, any prospective patentee had to present a petition to no less than seven offices and at each stage to pay certain fees. Charles Dickens described the procedure in exaggerated form, somewhat derisively, in his spoof, "A Poor Man's Tale of a Patent", published in the 19th-century popular journal "Household Words"; Dickens' inventor visits 34 offices (including some abolished years before).

The Patent Office came about to meet public concerns over this state of affairs, and was established by the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852. This completely overhauled the British patent system and laid down a simplified procedure for obtaining patents of invention. Legal fees were reduced and the publication of a single United Kingdom patent replaced the issuing of separate patents for each nation of the Union.

A subsequent Act in 1883 brought into being the office of Comptroller General of Patents and a staff of patent examiners to carry out a limited form of examination; mainly to ensure that the specification described the invention properly, but without any investigation into novelty.

The 20th century

The introduction of patent searching.

An important milestone in the development of the British patent system was the Act of 1902, which introduced a limited investigation into the novelty of the invention before granting a patent. This required patent examiners to perform a search through United Kingdom specifications published within 50 years of the date of the application. Even with this restricted search, a vast amount of preparatory work was involved and an additional 190 examiners assisted the existing staff of 70 examiners.

By 1905, to enable searching, patent specifications from 1855 to 1900 had been abridged and classified in 1,022 volumes arranged in 146 classes according to subject. By 1907, the abridgement volumes extended back to the first patent to have a number:

• Patent No. 1 of 1617 granted to Rathburn & Burges for "Engraving and Printing Maps, Plans &c".

The legislation in force at present is the 1977 Patents Act. This was the most radical piece of patents legislation for nearly 100 years. The Act sets out to ensure that the patent system is well suited to the needs of modern industry, sufficiently flexible to accommodate future changes in technology and adapted to operate in an international context.

Reaching the 2,500,000 patent publication milestone

On the 11 September 2013 the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) published patent number GB2500000.

The road to this landmark figure has been long, starting in the fifteenth century when the Crown granted monopolies to manufacturers and traders. Henry VI granted the earliest known English patent for invention to John of Utynam in 1449 which gave him a twenty year monopoly for a method of making stained glass. However, patents were not numbered until 1852 when the patent system was overhauled. The 14,359 patents granted up to that date were given numbers of the form No nnnn/yyyy, eg No 1/1617, and published during the 1850s.

Pre - 1852

The first numbered English patent, 1/1617, was granted to Rathburn & Burgess for "Engraving and printing Maps, Plans &c".

The 18th century is synonymous with revolution with the birth of the United States of America and the French declaring Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. However, in Britain the industrial revolution saw granted patents exceed the 1000 mark. In 1718 James Puckle's patent for a machine gun, 418/1718 External Link, was one of the first to provide a specification.

1852 - 1915

In the period 1852 to 1915 patent applications were numbered starting at 1 each year with granted patents retaining the same number. With the ever increasing pace of industrialization throughout the world the 200,000th patent was granted under this numbering system in 1895. The 500,000th landmark was reached in 1915 and a sign of the times was the publication of patent number 5956/1915 External Link on 18th October 1915 for "An improved Entrenching Tool". The applicant was Stephen Howard Neale Coxon, Captain in the 8th Royal Warwick Regiment.

The above period also saw the publication of many noteworthy inventions a number of which are still widely used or cherished today. On 22nd March 1900 the complete specification was published for patent number 13277/1899 External Link with the ominous title "An improved bait trap for mice, rats and the like". Commonly known as "Little Nipper" this is the flat-bed type of trap with a spring actuated neck breaker still widely used today.

On a more joyful note in October 1901 the complete specification was published for patent number 587/1901 External Link. The invention had the serious sounding title of "Improvements in Toy or Educational Devices for Children and Young People" However, Meccano® has brought hours of enjoyment to generations of young and old alike.


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