Age of Invention: The Origin of Patents

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Patents for invention — temporary monopolies on the use of new technologies — are frequently cited as a key contributor to the British Industrial Revolution. But where did they come from? We typically talk about them as formal institutions, imposed from above by supposedly wise rulers. But their origins, or at least their introduction to England, tell a very different story.

England’s monarchs had long used their prerogative powers to grant special dispensations by letters patent — that is, orders from the monarch that were open for all the public to see (think of the word patently, from the same root, which means openly or clearly). For the most part, such public proclamations had been used to grant titles of nobility, or to appoint people to positions in various official hierarchies — legal, religious, and governmental. And, of course, letters patent could be used to promote the introduction of new technologies.

Since at least the fourteenth century, English monarchs had used letters patent to grant rights of denizenship — protections to life and property similar to those for native-born subjects — to foreigners who promised to introduce new industries. As early as 1331, for example, Edward III granted his special protection to a Flemish weaver, John Kempe, while making clear that he would extend such privileges to any other foreigners who might help introduce cloth-making to England. Similar protections were given to Brabant weavers in 1336, to Delft-based clockmakers in 1368, to a Dutch salt manufacturer in 1440, and to Bohemian miners in 1452. Similarly, the monarch might occasionally use letters patent to grant special licenses to enable those with new techniques, whether native-born or foreign, to practise their trade without interference from the usual laws or guild restrictions. In the fifteenth century, for example, the king licensed a handful of people to find the philosopher’s stone: an alchemical procedure that was otherwise banned, out of a very reasonable worry that those with chemical skill might interfere with the coinage.

But although these royal proclamations took the form of letters patent, they should not be confused with patents in the usual modern sense, of granting a temporary monopoly to use a new technology. None of the earlier uses of letters patent appear to have conferred any kind of monopoly, temporary or otherwise (with only a single, isolated exception in 1449 to a rather mysterious John Utynam, who got a 20-year monopoly for making stained glass). On the whole, the early patents to the introducers of new technologies were more akin to modern visas for skilled immigrants, occasionally coupled with dispensations from the usual regulations. The use of monopolies to encourage invention came later.

Monopolies in general, of course, over particular trades or industries had been granted for centuries, by rulers all across Europe. They granted such privileges to groups of merchants, artisans, and city-dwellers, giving them rights to organise and regulate their own activities as guilds or as city corporations. Inherent to all such charters was the ability of the in-group to restrict competition from outsiders, at least within the confines of their city. And the ruler, in exchange for granting such privileges, typically received a share of the guild’s or corporation’s revenues. But such monopolies were very rarely given to individuals. When they were, it was often so unpopular as to be almost immediately overturned. And they were rarely used to encourage innovation.

With one exception: Italy. Throughout the fifteenth century, some Italian city guilds had begun to forbid their members from copying newly-invented patterns for silk and woollen cloth, effectively granting a monopoly over those patterns to the individual inventors. In Venice, a 50-year monopoly was granted in 1416 to one Franciscus Petri, of Rhodes, to introduce superior fulling mills. In Florence, the famous architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi was granted a monopoly in 1421 for a vessel he designed for transporting heavy loads of marble, in exchange for revealing the secrets of his design. The printing press was also introduced to Venice using such a privilege, with a 5-year monopoly granted in 1469 to Johannes of Speyer, though he died only a few months after receiving it. And these ad hoc grants were made with increasing frequency, such that in 1474 Venice legislated to make them more systematic, declaring that 10-year monopolies could be obtained for all new technologies, either invented or imported (though it continued to also grant ad hoc patents, with the terms and durations decided on a case-by-case basis as before). Under the 1474 law, Venice was soon granting patent monopolies to the introducers of various mills, pumps, dredges, textile machines, printing techniques, and even special kinds of lasagna. It granted over a hundred patents in the first half of the sixteenth century, with many more thereafter.

From Venice, the use of patent monopolies as an instrument of policy spread abroad, with the initiative coming from the would-be introducers of novelties themselves. In the mid-fifteenth century, for example, a French inventor who had acquired patents in Venice was also successfully lobbying for similar privileges from the archbishop of Salzburg, the duke of Ferrara, and the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor. The use of patent monopolies thus soon diffused to the rest of Italy, to Germany, and to the various dominions of the Spanish emperor — including Spain itself, its American colonies, and the Low Countries.

And, eventually, to England. But not in the way we might expect. In 1496, the Venetian explorer Zuan Chabotto (aka John Cabot) acquired a patent monopoly from Henry VII over the trade and products of any lands he was to discover — a legal procedure unlike anything that earlier English explorers had attempted (they had merely been granted licenses). Cabot’s grant even differed from the agreements made by Christopher Columbus with the Spanish crown, or by earlier explorers for the Portuguese. Columbus, for example, was effectively granted a patent of nobility — the hereditary titles of viceroy, admiral, and governor. He and the Portuguese explorers were direct agents of the crown, with military and justice-dispensing responsibilities over any newly conquered lands — a model derived from the Christian conquests of Muslim Iberia. Columbus effectively became a marcher lord, a custodian and defender of Spain’s new borderlands.

John Cabot, by contrast, adapted the familiar Venetian procedure for inventions and obtained a patent monopoly over any discovery’s commercial exploitation, from which the English monarch could then take their cut. This adaptation of a patent for invention may on the face of it seem surprising, as discovery today has a very different meaning from invention. But the lines at the time were significantly more blurred, if there were any lines at all. For example, when Francis Bacon in the same sentence described the discovery of the Americas and the invention of the magnetic compass, he used the Latin word inventio for both. And Columbus himself used the classical Latin invenio — meaning “to find out” — when announcing his own discovery. It was only much later, over the course of the seventeenth century, that the term invention became restricted to works of artifice. Until then, it was used interchangeably with the word discovery — an import from Portuguese, initially with the same broad meaning of finding out or uncovering. Thus, Cabot’s 1496 patent was, in Latin, ad inveniendum, discooperiendum, et investigandum, translated in the mid-sixteenth century into English as “to seek out, discover, and find”.

Cabot’s patent on the Venetian model, however, still seems to have drawn some inspiration from the Spanish or Portuguese patents — perhaps unsurprising, as he had reportedly lobbied the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs for support before moving on to try his luck in England. Unlike the typical Venetian grant, for example, Cabot and his heirs were also invested with military responsibilities, to act “as vassals and lieutenants” to subdue any non-Christian lands they came across. And, unlike most of the Venetian patents, their monopoly was not temporary. But on the whole, the grant most resembles a Venetian one. Cabot and his heirs were given the right to exclude others from travelling to the places they found, and they were to hand over only 20% of their profits from the trade to the crown — stipulations not found in the patents awarded by Iberian monarchs. Columbus, by contrast, had to hand over 90%, and had no monopoly rights of his own — these were retained by the crown. He was instead remunerated largely through the salaries associated with his new titles and status.

After Cabot, the English patents for exploration even more closely resembled the Venetian patents for invention. A 1501 patent to a group of Azorean navigators allowed them to prevent others from trading with the lands they discovered, but only temporarily. And their monopoly was limited to 10 years — exactly the duration decreed by the Venetian patent law. This grant also drew upon the much older English use of letters patent to encourage foreigners to introduce new technologies: it gave the foreign explorers and their children denizenship rights. So overall, the intent is clear: the early patents for exploration were designed in such a way that they incentivised more discovery. The more unknown lands that individuals like Cabot or the Azoreans actually found, the more they could potentially profit. And the patents provided the added incentive of encouraging the introduction of the new techniques of celestial navigation. In England at the turn of the fifteenth century, Venetian patents for invention thus manifested as patents for discovery.

Yet these were few, and not really repeated. Otherwise, Venetian-style privileges next came to England in the wake of the printing press. Venice granted temporary monopolies, not just to the introducers of new technologies, but to the publishers of new books. We today distinguish patents for invention from literary copyright, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries these monopolies were initially granted in much the same way. They were identical in legal terms, and identical in their aims. They were both monopolies to encourage the introduction of novel productions, and to enable the introducers to recover the high initial costs of their investments. Indeed, in Europe the Latin inventio was just as often a term applied to creative literary endeavours — the construction of new sentences, phrases, stories, and genres — as it was to discoveries, industrial methods, or techniques, with plenty of borderline cases too. From the 1490s, for example, Venice awarded monopolies to the introducers of italics, printed sheet music, a typeface for printing Greek, and a woodcut technique for producing shaded illustrations instead of just line drawings. And it’s worth bearing in mind that printing could offer one of the few ways to profit from certain inventions: one Italian author in 1492 wanted to protect his newly-devised method of training the memory, so obtained Venetian a monopoly on the method’s publication. Printers increasingly petitioned for monopolies on the works of particular authors, for certain genres, or for publishing certain manuscripts for the first time.

Soon, these literary privileges proliferated throughout Europe, making their first appearances in Italy, Germany, and France, and eventually reaching England. And as with the monopolies for exploration, the earliest known English privilege for a printed work appears to have had direct Venetian influences. It was granted in 1512 to the king’s physician, Thomas Linacre, and his publisher John Rastell (later a failed explorer, and brother-in-law of Thomas More). Linacre had spent some years in Venice in the 1490s collaborating with the printer Aldus Manutius — the Venetian patentee of italics, who also obtained many of the earlier privileges for particular books. Linacre’s main friend in Venice was thus one of the pioneers of monopolies for literary invention. So when Linacre decided to publish his first work in England — a Latin grammar — he appears to have used his privileged access to the king, his patient, to obtain a similar kind of monopoly.

Yet despite these early English applications of Venetian patent monopolies, they did not really take off until the mid-sixteenth century. The early English exploration patent monopolies were few — I have not yet found any between 1502 and the 1550s — and the privileges for printing were seemingly not applied beyond that industry. Though not for want of trying. At least one Italian, Antonio Guidotti, in 1537 lobbied for monopoly rights for 15 or 20 years to introduce silk-weaving to England. The request does not seem to have been granted, but the series of crises that wracked England in the 1540s and 50s seem to have provided inventors with a fresh opportunity.

Writing in 1549, when England most struggled with inflation, unemployment, and uprisings, one of the most influential statesmen of the period, Sir Thomas Smith, upheld Venice as a source of solutions. He admiringly described how “if they may hear of any cunning craftsman in any faculty, they will find the means to allure him to dwell in their city”. And he noted that the people who introduced new industries were “rewarded and cherished” — a clear allusion to its monopoly privileges. Thus, when foreign inventors came a-knocking again to provide technological solutions to the various English crises, policymakers were this time more open to their petitions. The growing number of patents granted in the 1550s and 60s even copied the Venetian model, typically conferring monopolies that lasted 10 years, or multiples of 10. (It was only in the 1580s that they were more commonly lasted multiples of 7 years — ostensibly to reflect the duration of an English apprenticeship, with many of the patents specifying that the inventor of a technology was to induct some young natives to its mysteries.)

Thus, it was from Venice that English policymakers gradually adopted the practice of awarding temporary monopolies for inventions. But it was not a straightforward, or even a top-down process. The formal institution of patents was created in response to the bottom-up lobbying efforts of foreign inventors, although policymakers needed an added push before they regularly approved their petitions — a push provided, I think, by the crises of mid-sixteenth-century England.

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