Skip to content

By Paris Penman Davies on

Celebrating 400 years of British patents

From radio and radar to MRI and fibre optics, do you know just how many of the world’s revolutionary innovations were developed and patented in Britain?

2017 is a special year for the UK as it marks the 400th anniversary of the grant of British patent number one. From radio and radar to MRI and fibre optics, do you know just how many of the world’s revolutionary innovations were developed and patented in Britain?

It all started in 1852 (yes, we know that’s not 400 years ago, bear with us!) when the Patent Law Amendment Act created The Patent Office. When the commissioners were appointed to administer the act in 1852, they set out to address a longstanding grievance by printing and publishing the records of English patents for inventions granted before the year 1852. To do this they referred to a series of docquet books going back to 1617 which listed all of the grants that had been made under the Great Seal. They arranged the entries in chronological order starting with the earliest patent register, known as GB1, which was granted on 2 March 1617 to Rapburne and Burges of London and related to the production of a map of the city of London.*

This archive represents one of the world’s oldest and most widely respected systems of Intellectual Property. It is also a treasure trove of imagination, which is exactly what the IPO, British Library and GREAT Britain campaign have set out to explore in a commemorative project which shines a light on some of the standout patents from the last 400 years through a series of original images. The imagery has been produced by a creative collective led by still life photographer Ted Humble-Smith comprising British sculptors, set designers, artists and engineers.

All of the patents featured can be seen by following @GREATforImagination on Instagram or searching #GREATforImagination.

*Note: Historians highlight that the commissioners’ failure to take into account Britain’s transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 means that some of the dates on the register are not accurate if using modern dating methods. If you were to account for this transition, the first chronological patent would actually be GB2, issued to Nicholas Hillyard on 1st May 1617. The patent granted Hillyard, an artist who specialised in sculpting miniatures, the sole licence to produce engraved royal portraits for a period of twelve years. But whether you consider GB1 or GB2 to be the original register, 2017 marks the 400th anniversary of the granting of the first numbered patents.

Kinemacolor. Credit: Ted Humble-Smith

Kinemacolor, The World’s First Successful Colour Film Process GB190626671
George Albert Smith was born in London on 4 January 1864. After witnessing a film demonstration by the Lumiere brothers in 1896, Smith purchased a camera and began making short films in and around St Ann’s Well Garden in Brighton. Through his work he came into contact with the American financier, Charles Urban, and by the early 1900s he and Urban were building on the ideas of Edward Turner with the aim of producing the first successful colour process.

Whereas Turner had focused on three colours, Smith realized that only two colours (red and green) were required to make a satisfactory colour image and he patented his technique, Kinemacolor, in 1906. In May 1908 Smith and Urban unveiled Kinemacolor to a stunned audience at the Urbanora House on Wardour Street. This was the beginning of a production boom for the area and by 1914 Wardour Street was home to more than 20 film companies.

Today, Britain’s film industry is booming and film production spend reached £1.6bn in 2016. More information on the history of film and photography can be found at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

The Electric Telegraph. Credit: Ted Humble-Smith

The Electric Telegraph GB183707390
In 1837 Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke demonstrated the world’s first electric telegraph system to the directors of the newly-opened London and Birmingham Railway. Messages were relayed from one device to the other by using electromagnetism to rotate needles in the direction of the correct letter. The instrument was known simply therefore as the ‘Five Needle Telegraph’ and marks the origin of one of the UK’s largest communications companies today: BT.

This was a significant invention and from the 1840s onwards the electric telegraph transformed world communications. After a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866, messages between Europe and North America took only hours to arrive rather than weeks. The electric telegraph also enabled Greenwich time to be distributed right across Britain, and within a few years local time, based on the times of sunrise and sunset, had been replaced by standard (Greenwich) time.

You can see the Cooke and Wheatstone electric telegraph dial in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Credit: Ted Humble-Smith

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) GB1596160
Sir Peter Mansfield led a team at the University of Nottingham in the 1970s that developed Magnetic Resonance Imaging, one of the most important breakthroughs in modern medicine. The technique uses a powerful magnet to align water molecules in the body, producing detailed 3D images without the use of damaging radiation. Sir Peter shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with the American chemist and inventor of the technique Paul Lauterbur.

Sir Peter’s personal story is also interesting – the son of a gas fitter, he left school at the age of 15, working as a printer’s assistant until he managed to secure a job at the government’s rocket propulsion department in Westcott, Buckinghamshire. After a degree in physics at Queen Mary College, University of London, he joined the University of Nottingham as a physics lecturer in 1964 and remained there for 30 years. He sadly passed away this year.