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History of Patents

Updated on November 18, 2009

The first country to introduce a 'safeguard' for inventors was the Republic of Venice in the late fifteenth century. In 1474 patents were issued granting exclusive rights to people who were able to prove the importance of new inventions. About 100 years later one of the Venetian patents was granted to the great astronomer Galileo Galilei for a water pump.

In addition to patents for invention, sovereigns often granted patents giving persons or groups monopolistic rights over lands and commodities. A patent system was adopted in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1588-1603) as a means of increasing revenue.

Letters patent, or public letters, were issued by Henry VII of England to John Cabot for the discovery of new lands, and Massachusetts was settled under a land patent from Charles I. Elizabeth I gave patents for many articles of daily use, such as coal, soap, starch, iron manufactures, and books. The Stuart rulers who followed her granted a large number of patents on the basis of favoritism.

As a result, Parliament, in 1623, prohibited all patents except those for inventions. The Statute of Monopolies passed by James I, terminated this restrictive procedure while still allowing inventors to have the ownership of their inventions. Patent grants continued, although no relevant formal law was operative until 1852.

The system was taken to America with English colonisation and the first patent was granted to Samuel Winslow by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641 for a salt-processing technique and in 1646 to Joseph Jenks for a water-powered engine, the first patented American machine. With the independence of the colonies patents were issued by the state legislature but inventions were often plagiarised and patented in other states.

The patent system came under federal jurisdiction in 1790 when the US Constitution granted Congress control over legislation. The US Patent Office was established in 1836 and there were comprehensive revisions of the law in 1870 and 1952. The first patent granted under the authority of the federal government went to Samuel Hopkins in Philadelphia for an improved way of making potash and its derivative, pearl ash. Two great American inventors, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, declined to patent their inventions because they felt that the benefits of their creations should be enjoyed by everyone.

According to the original patent act of 1790 the power to grant patents was vested in a board consisting of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General. In 1802 the U.S. Patent Office was established as a separate unit, and in 1836 a new patent law instituted the principle of examining all earlier patents to determine originality. Modern patent law is based on the 1836 law, as revised in 1870 and as revised and codified in 1953.

In Britain the Patent Office was established in 1883 and today also administers designs and trademarks. International practice In all countries thousands of patent applications are made each year and an average of approximately 60 per cent is granted. In an application the inventor is required to present all relevant details of his invention or discovery and a thorough investigation is then made of all new processes. Bilateral treaties have been formed to protect the interests of patentees. The International Convention for the Protection of Industrial Properties, initially formed in 1883, has a membership of more than 60 countries and protects the exclusive patent rights of the inventor in all participating territories. The United States and South America have a further agreement called the Inter-American Convention Relating to Inventions, Patents, Designs and Industrial Models. There is also a number of patent agreements within much of the European Economic Community (EEC).

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