Posted on 26/4/2017

World IP Day – Birmingham’s significant innovations

We take a look at some of Birmingham’s greatest innovative achievements.

World Intellectual Property Day is celebrated each year on April 26 with the aim of increasing awareness and understanding of intellectual property.

The theme of this year’s World IP Day is “Innovation – Improving Lives” so we decided to get involved by taking a look back at some of the significant innovations from Birmingham which have contributed to improving our lives. We have also put together a list of inventions from Manchester.

Steam Engine Improvements

Whilst James Watt did not invent the steam engine, he significantly improved the Newcomen engine by designing a separate condensing chamber that prevented enormous losses of steam. In 1769 he was awarded a patent for his improvements. In 1775, in partnership with the industrialist Matthew Boulton, they began manufacturing steam engines in Birmingham which helped to power the Industrial Revolution.

Copying Press

James Watt was a prolific inventor and in 1780 he patented the design for a machine which would enable him to copy letters rather than having to write a longhand second copy for his records. The Library of Birmingham explains the design: ‘The copying press process worked by using modified ink in the original letter. A moistened piece of thin copying paper was laid over the original. The pressure from the press then bled the ink through the back of the copying paper, creating a mirror image of the letter which, when turned around, was a replica of the original.’ The principle of his method remained in use until the invention of modern photocopying.

Patent Leather

In 1793, a magazine called The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer, published an article titled ‘Hand’s patent leather’. It describes how a Mr Hand in Birmingham had obtained a patent for a method which makes leather ‘rendered perfectly imperious to water, and when soiled, requires only to be wiped with a sponge to restore it to its original lustre’.

Metal Pen Nibs

Metal pen nibs were not invented in Birmingham but from the 1820s until the invention of the ballpoint pen in 1938, Birmingham was the leader in the mass manufacturing of steel-nib pens. Patents granted to James Perry, Josiah Mason and Joseph Gillott, coupled with William Mitchell’s use of machinery in the production of pens, put Birmingham at the heart of this industry.


In 1840, Henry and George Elkington, together with John Wright and Alexander Parkes, secured the first patent for gold and silver electroplating. Electroplating is the process of plating one metal onto the surface of another. Elkington & Co experienced huge commercial success, producing silver plated tableware, cutlery and jewellery, as well as fine display items, from their factory in Birmingham.

Parkesine (Nitrocellulose)

Parkesine is the trade mark of the first man-made plastic, nitrocellulose. Patented in 1862 by Alexander Parkes, he set up the Parkesine Company at Hackney Wick in London in 1865 to manufacture plastic items on an industrial scale. Unfortunately, the company failed within a couple of years.

Bicycle Bell

Invented by John Richard Dedicoat, the first patent for a bicycle bell was granted in 1877.

Domestic Vacuum Cleaner

Walter Griffiths, a manufacturer in Birmingham, patented the first portable vacuum cleaner in 1905 which was targeted at the domestic market. Although it was a manual appliance, requiring you to use a foot pump, it was much smaller than Herbert Booth’s 1901 motorised vacuum cleaner which required a horse and buggy to be moved!


In 1947, Anthony Ernest Pratt of Kings Heath, Birmingham was granted a patent for his invention of a murder mystery board game. Originally titled ‘Murder’, the game was manufactured by Waddingtons from 1949 and today is sold in over 40 countries around the world.

To find out more about intellectual property, have a look at our online resources or get in touch to speak to one of our attorneys.

Wilson Gunn