The History of Patents

The origin of the concept of patents for invention is an obscure one. There is reasonable evidence to suggest something similar to a patent system was used among some ancient Greek cities, although it is generally acknowledged by historians that the first informal system originated in Renaissance Italy in 1474.

The first recorded modern patent was granted by the city-state of Florence in 1421 to Filippo Brunelleschi, famous for engineering the dome of the Florence cathedral. Brunelleschi's patent was for inventing a means of conveying heavy loads (specifically, large slabs of marble) up the Arno River for the construction of the Florence cathedral. The boat design was christened 'Il Badalone'. The grant provided Brunelleschi the right to exclude all new means of transport on the Arno River for three years. The Venetian Senate later passed the first patent law, introducing a Venetian Statute in 1474 that protected new and inventive devices in return for disclosure to the Venetian Republic. This initiative has been judged by historians to be the result of an attempt to invigorate the Republic and re-inject initiative and innovation at a time of economic decline.

Brunelleschi's 'Il Badalone'

Brunelleschi's 'Il Badalone', taken from the book De Ingenis by Taccola

The first English patent was granted in 1449

The first English patent for invention was granted in 1449 to John of Utynam, a Flemish-born stained glass manufacturer, by King Henry IV. John of Utynam was granted a 20 years monopoly for a glass-making process that was unknown of in England at that time. The stained glass produced would be used to complete the windows of Eton College.

This marked the beginning of a great tradition under the Tudors of the granting of 'Letters Patent' (meaning 'open letter') by the English Crown. The Crown granted monopolies for trades and manufacturers, including patents for invention. Elizabeth I granted about 50 patents from 1561 to 1590, allowing the recipients to exercise monopolies in the sale and manufacture of goods such as soap, leather, glass, salt, sailcloth, iron and paper.

However, under the reign of Elizabeth I and her successor James I, the power of granting monopolies became increasingly abused. Monopolies were granted for inventions and trades that were not novel, often to Royal favourites as a means to replenish Royal coffers and raise money for the Crown. Subsequently, the Court began to limit situations in which monopolies could be granted. In 1610, James I, under increasing judicial criticism and public outcry, was forced to revoke all previous patents, by declaring them "contrary to our laws" in his Book of Bounty.

An exception to this ban was allowed for "projects of new invention". This was incorporated into England's first patent law, the Statute of Monopolies, in 1624. In Section 6 of the Statute, Parliament rendered illegal all monopolies except those for a limited term of 14 years or under, granted to true inventors.

In the 200 years following the Statute of Monopolies, the patent system was progressed with lawyers and judges in courts and not with government legislation. It was during the reign of Queen Anne that conditions of grant were changed. Law officers of the Crown established that the conditions of grant meant a patentee was required to provide a written description of the invention to be patented and the manner in which it was to be performed – and thus the need for a patent specification was introduced.

The 1718 machine gun patent by James Puckle was one of the first to be required to provide a specification. Further, in 1785 the patent for Arkwright's famous spinning machines became void due to the lack of an adequate specification; this was after the patent had existed for 10 years!

In the mid-19th century patent applications were complicated, expensive and in need of reform

The complicated patent system of the mid-19th century required the patentee to visit seven different offices and obtain the King's signature twice in order to obtain a patent, plus the compulsion of paying expensive fees at each stage of the process. Despite providing adequate service where dramatic technological changes were commonplace during the Industrial Revolution of 1760–1830, by the mid-19th century the patent system was in great need of reform, and this was exposed by The Great Exhibition of 1851 which accelerated reformation demands.

Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852

Following a period of institutional reform, the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852 established the modern day Patent Office in October 1852. This resulted in a complete overhaul of the previously inefficient and aging British patent system and provided a simplified procedure for obtaining a patent. The Patent Office required a description of the invention be filed with the application and introduced the publication of applications. Moreover, separate patents for each of the countries in the UK were replaced with the issuing of a single UK patent, and significantly reduced legal fees by roughly three quarters.

The Patents, Designs, and Trade Marks Act of 1883 brought into being the office of Comptroller General of Patents and a staff of patent examiners who were able to carry out limited examination on patent applications. The examination was predominantly to ensure an accurate description of the invention was provided by the specification, but no investigation into novelty was carried out.

The Patents Act of 1902 marked an important milestone in the development of the modern-day patent system. This Act introduced an investigation into the novelty of an invention prior to grant for all UK specifications published within 50 years of the application date. Despite investigatory limitations, extra preparatory work required a major reorganisation of the Patent Office which included the recruitment of an additional 190 examiners to assist the existing 70 examiners.

The Patents Act of 1977

The current legislation is the Patents Act of 1977. The Act was designed to accommodate modern technology and allow the adaptation to future technological changes such as advances in the pharmaceutical industry. During the 1980s, supra-national patent issuing authorities were developed such as the European Patent Office (EPO) and the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO). These authorities allow for the simultaneous filing of patent applications in several countries from a single application.