Henry Cole and the beginings of modern Patent law

At the end of 1850, the UK’s patent system and law was a  ‘exclusive law ‘ and it had been so for centuries.   Within 18 months things had changed.  The  July 1, 1852 “Patent Law Amendment Act”  meant that getting a patent was no longer the exclusive preserve of those with  quite a lot of money and the right connections. The precursor to this  Act was the previous years  ‘Protection of Inventions Act ‘ . That 1851 Law was an ’emergency’ law intended to give artisan inventors who were planning to exhibit in the Great Exhibition, a ‘just in time’ chance to patent their inventions, at a price they could afford before they put them on public display .

Louise Purbicks paper “Knowledge Is Property: Looking at Exhibits and Patents in 1851″  focuses (in part)  on why did Henry Cole the organizer of the  Great Exhibition of 1851 and a lifelong passionate advocate of ‘exhibition for education’, devote so much time and energy to (successfully) advocating major reform of the UK’s Patents Law? :

“The real issue is why it was necessary, 1 when there was already a patent law in existence. A report by the Royal Commission of 1851 offered an explanation. It read:

The ‘Protection of Invention Act 1851’, was passed to
remedy an evil arising out of the patent laws which very
early pressed upon the attention of the promoters of the
Great Exhibition . . . the expense, difficulties, risk, and the
delay in the system rendered it impossible for a large class,
and more particularly the poorer class, to protect themselves
by letters patent previous to exhibiting.

Purbick goes on to say:

…the intention of The Protection of Inventions Act was to allow some of those excluded from existing patent law to safeguard their objects at the Great Exhibition. Thus, the Act should be understood as an attempt to address both an immediate problem posed by public display in 1851 and an old problem of exclusive law.

For example :

A patent and its powers were not easy to obtain. There was a procedure set out in the 1536 Clerks Act, governing the use of the Royal Prerogative and the Great Seal, which had to be negotiated. Two signatures from the monarch were required, ten separate stages had to be completed and a fee was attached to each. The total cost of a patent which covered England could be as much as a hundred pounds.

In short patents at that time were:

…an exceptional measure, a legal favour which granted property rights subject to a successful petition. The problem of the old law was not only practical but political. Because it was cumbersome, it was also corrupt. Because it was expensive, it was also arbitrary. In short, it was illiberal, absolutist almost, and unreformed.

And that:

…Henry Cole and the Society of Arts Committee
wanted a new patent law. They called for wholesale
reform while maintaining the institution of the patent.
They did not want to abolish patents or property
rights. Far from it. …

Cole’s motivations  seem  that of a genuine liberal reformer. He believed that  by protecting all inventors from “piracy” (for a limited time) it would encourage the public display of more new inventions for the purposes of education and  that therefore would lead to to the creation of  yet more inventions.  And that it would also, by making it more likely that the work of invention would be properly paid for,  encourage more invention.

I think that the creation of  new long term monopolies, held by exclusive groups was not what he had in mind at all.


  1. to make new laws[]

About john Walker

John R Walker Is a professionally practising artist who has exhibited regularly, nationally and internationally, for more than 30 years. His work is held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, most state and regional gallery collections and in private and corporate collections in Australia, Britain and the USA. John R Walker is represented by Utopia Art Sydney. For more information visit johnrwalker.com.au
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7 years ago

He was a great public servant. He was also responsible for egg-shaped drains (supposed to maximise flow speed) of which Melbourne still has a few.

John walker
7 years ago
Reply to  ChrisB

Henry seems to have been a wonderful, inventive, public spirited man.
Henry managed to inspire Charles Dickens to write a journal article “A Poor Man’s Tale of a Patent” , that had quite an impact :
” …. Is it reasonable to make a man feel as if, in inventing an ingenious improvement meant to do good, he had done something wrong? How else can a man feel, when he is met by such difficulties at every turn? All inventors taking out a Patent MUST feel so. And look at the expense. How hard on me, and how hard on the country if there’s any merit in me (and my invention is took up now, I am thankful to say, and doing well), to put me to all that expense before I can move a finger! Make the addition yourself, and it’ll come to ninety-six pound, seven, and eightpence. No more, and no less. . . .

Look at the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General, the Patent Office, the Engrossing Clerk, the Lord Chancellor, the Privy Seal, the Clerk of the Patents, the Lord Chancellor’s Purse-bearer, the Clerk of the Hanaper, the Deputy Clerk of the Hanaper, the Deputy Sealer, and the Deputy Chaff-wax. No man in England could get a Patent for an Indian-rubber band, or an iron-hoop, without feeing all of them. Some of them, over and over again. I went through thirty-five stages. I began with the Queen upon the Throne. I ended with the Deputy Chaff-wax. . . .

I will now conclude with Thomas Joy. Thomas said to me, when we parted, ‘John, if the laws of this country were as honest as they ought to be, you would have come to London – registered an exact description and drawing of your invention – paid half-a-crown or so for doing of it – and therein and thereby have got your Patent.’ My opinion is the same as Thomas Joy.”