The difficulty of obtaining a patent — circa 1850

In the wake of changes in prosecution rules at the PTO. Some may find Charles Dickens’ 1850 essay on the struggle of an independent inventor somewhat encouraging. (In this story, John didn’t even get to the struggle of enforcement).

Charles Dickens, A Poor Man’s Tale of a Patent (1850)
 
I AM not used to writing for print. What working-man, that never labours less (some Mondays, and Christmas Time and Easter Time excepted) than twelve or fourteen hours a day, is? But I have been asked to put down, plain, what I have got to say; and so I take pen-and-ink, and do it to the best of my power, hoping defects will find excuse.
 
I was born nigh London, but have worked in a shop at Birmingham (what you would call Manufactories, we call Shops), almost ever since I was out of my time. I served my apprenticeship at Deptford, nigh where I was born, and I am a smith by trade. My name is John. I have been called ‘Old John’ ever since I was nineteen year of age, on account of not having much hair. I am fifty-six year of age at the present time, and I don’t find myself with more hair, nor yet with less, to signify, than at nineteen year of age aforesaid.
 
I have been married five and thirty year, come next April. I was married on All Fools’ Day. Let them laugh that will. I won a good wife that day, and it was as sensible a day to me as ever I had.
 
We have had a matter of ten children, six whereof are living. My eldest son is engineer in the Italian steam-packet ‘Mezzo Giorno, plying between Marseilles and Naples, and calling at Genoa, Leghorn, and Civita Vecchia.’ He was a good workman. He invented a many useful little things that brought him in — nothing. I have two sons doing well at Sydney, New South Wales — single, when last heard from. One of my sons (James) went wild and for a soldier, where he was shot in India, living six weeks in hospital with a musket-ball lodged in his shoulder-blade, which he wrote with his own hand. He was the best looking. One of my two daughters (Mary) is comfortable in her circumstances, but water on the chest. The other (Charlotte), her husband run away from her in the basest manner, and she and her three children live with us. The youngest, six year old, has a turn for mechanics.
 
I am not a Chartist, and I never was. I don’t mean to say but what I see a good many public points to complain of, still I don’t think that’s the way to set them right. If I did think so, I should be a Chartist. But I don’t think so, and I am not a Chartist. I read the paper, and hear discussion, at what we call ‘a parlour,’ in Birmingham, and I know many good men and workmen who are Chartists. Note. Not Physical force.
 
It won’t be took as boastful in me, if I make the remark (for I can’t put down what I have got to say, without putting that down before going any further), that I have always been of an ingenious turn. I once got twenty pound by a screw, and it’s in use now. I have been twenty year, off and on, completing an Invention and perfecting it. I perfected of it, last Christmas Eve at ten o’clock at night. Me and my wife stood and let some tears fall over the Model, when it was done and I brought her in to take a look at it.
 
A friend of mine, by the name of William Butcher, is a Chartist. Moderate. He is a good speaker. He is very animated. I have often heard him deliver that what is, at every turn, in the way of us working-men, is, that too many places have been made, in the course of time, to provide for people that never ought to have been provided for; and that we have to obey forms and to pay fees to support those places when we shouldn’t ought. ‘True,’ (delivers William Butcher), ‘all the public has to do this, but it falls heaviest on the working-man, because he has least to spare; and likewise because impediments shouldn’t be put in his way, when he wants redress of wrong or furtherance of right.’ Note. I have wrote down those words from William Butcher’s own mouth. W. B. delivering them fresh for the aforesaid purpose.
 
Now, to my Model again. There it was, perfected of, on Christmas Eve, gone nigh a year, at ten o’clock at night. All the money I could spare I had laid out upon the Model; and when times was bad, or my daughter Charlotte’s children sickly, or both, it had stood still, months at a spell. I had pulled it to pieces, and made it over again with improvements, I don’t know how often. There it stood, at last, a perfected Model as aforesaid.
 
William Butcher and me had a long talk, Christmas Day, respecting of the Model. William is very sensible. But sometimes cranky. William said, ‘What will you do with it, John?’ I said, ‘Patent it.’ William said, ‘How patent it, John?’ I said, ‘By taking out a Patent.’ William then delivered that the law of Patent was a cruel wrong. William said, ‘John, if you make your invention public, before you get a Patent, any one may rob you of the fruits of your hard work. You are put in a cleft stick, John. Either you must drive a bargain very much against yourself, by getting a party to come forward beforehand with the great expenses of the Patent; or, you must be put about, from post to pillar, among so many parties, trying to make a better bargain for yourself, and showing your invention, that your invention will be took from you over your head.’ I said, ‘William Butcher, are you cranky? You are sometimes cranky.’ William said, ‘No, John, I tell you the truth;’ which he then delivered more at length. I said to W. B. I would Patent the invention myself.
 
My wife’s brother, George Bury of West Bromwich (his wife unfortunately took to drinking, made away with everything, and seventeen times committed to Birmingham Jail before happy release in every point of view), left my wife, his sister, when he died, a legacy of one hundred and twenty-eight pound ten, Bank of England Stocks. Me and my wife never broke into that money yet. Note. We might come to be old and past our work. We now agreed to Patent the invention. We said we would make a hole in it — I mean in the aforesaid money — and Patent the invention. William Butcher wrote me a letter to Thomas Joy, in London. T. J. is a carpenter, six foot four in height, and plays quoits well. He lives in Chelsea, London, by the church. I got leave from the shop, to be took on again when I come back. I am a good workman. Not a Teetotaller; but never drunk. When the Christmas holidays were over, I went up to London by the Parliamentary Train, and hired a lodging for a week with Thomas Joy. He is married. He has one son gone to sea.
 
Thomas Joy delivered (from a book he had) that the first step to be took, in Patenting the invention, was to prepare a petition unto Queen Victoria. William Butcher had delivered similar, and drawn it up. Note. William is a ready writer. A declaration before a Master in Chancery was to be added to it. That, we likewise drew up. After a deal of trouble I found out a Master, in Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane, nigh Temple Bar, where I made the declaration, and paid eighteen-pence. I was told to take the declaration and petition to the Home Office, in Whitehall, where I left it to be signed by the Home Secretary (after I had found the office out), and where I paid two pound, two, and sixpence. In six days he signed it, and I was told to take it to the Attorney-General’s chambers, and leave it there for a report. I did so, and paid four pound, four. Note. Nobody all through, ever thankful for their money, but all uncivil.
 
My lodging at Thomas Joy’s was now hired for another week, whereof five days were gone. The Attorney-General made what they called a Report-of-course (my invention being, as William Butcher had delivered before starting, unopposed), and I was sent back with it to the Home Office. They made a Copy of it, which was called a Warrant. For this warrant, I paid seven pound, thirteen, and six. It was sent to the Queen, to sign. The Queen sent it back, signed. The Home Secretary signed it again. The gentleman throwed it at me when I called, and said, ‘Now take it to the Patent Office in Lincoln’s Inn.’ I was then in my third week at Thomas Joy’s living very sparing, on account of fees. I found myself losing heart.
 
At the Patent Office in Lincoln’s Inn, they made ‘a draft of the Queen’s bill,’ of my invention, and a ‘docket of the bill.’ I paid five pound, ten, and six, for this. They ‘engrossed two copies of the bill; one for the Signet Office, and one for the Privy-Seal Office.’ I paid one pound, seven, and six, for this. Stamp duty over and above, three pound. The Engrossing Clerk of the same office engrossed the Queen’s bill for signature. I paid him one pound, one. Stamp-duty, again, one pound, ten. I was next to take the Queen’s bill to the Attorney-General again, and get it signed again. I took it, and paid five pound more. I fetched it away, and took it to the Home Secretary again. He sent it to the Queen again. She signed it again. I paid seven pound, thirteen, and six, more, for this. I had been over a month at Thomas Joy’s. I was quite wore out, patience and pocket.
 
Thomas Joy delivered all this, as it went on, to William Butcher. William Butcher delivered it again to three Birmingham Parlours, from which it got to all the other Parlours, and was took, as I have been told since, right through all the shops in the North of England. Note. William Butcher delivered, at his Parlour, in a speech, that it was a Patent way of making Chartists.
 
But I hadn’t nigh done yet. The Queen’s bill was to be took to the Signet Office in Somerset House, Strand — where the stamp shop is. The Clerk of the Signet made ‘a Signet bill for the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal.’ I paid him four pound, seven. The Clerk of the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal made ‘a Privy-Seal bill for the Lord Chancellor.’ I paid him, four pound, two. The Privy-Seal bill was handed over to the Clerk of the Patents, who engrossed the aforesaid. I paid him five pound, seventeen, and eight; at the same time, I paid Stamp-duty for the Patent, in one lump, thirty pound. I next paid for ‘boxes for the Patent,’ nine and sixpence. Note. Thomas Joy would have made the same at a profit for eighteen-pence. I next paid ‘fees to the Deputy, the Lord Chancellor’s Purse-bearer,’ two pound, two. I next paid ‘fees to the Clerk of the Hanapar,’ seven pound, thirteen. I next paid ‘fees to the Deputy Clerk of the Hanaper,’ ten shillings. I next paid, to the Lord Chancellor again, one pound, eleven, and six. Last of all, I paid ‘fees to the Deputy Sealer, and Deputy Chaff-wax,’ ten shillings and sixpence. I had lodged at Thomas Joy’s over six weeks, and the unopposed Patent for my invention, for England only, had cost me ninety-six pound, seven, and eightpence. If I had taken it out for the United Kingdom, it would have cost me more than three hundred pound.
 
Now, teaching had not come up but very limited when I was young. So much the worse for me you’ll say. I say the same. William Butcher is twenty year younger than me. He knows a hundred year more. If William Butcher had wanted to Patent an invention, he might have been sharper than myself when hustled backwards and forwards among all those offices, though I doubt if so patient. Note. William being sometimes cranky, and consider porters, messengers, and clerks.
 
Thereby I say nothing of my being tired of my life, while I was Patenting my invention. But I put this: 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.
 
What can I say against William Butcher, about places? 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. Note. I should like to see the Deputy Chaff-wax. Is it a man, or what is it?
 
What I had to tell, I have told. I have wrote it down. I hope it’s plain. Not so much in the handwriting (though nothing to boast of there), as in the sense of it. 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. Further. In William Butcher’s delivering ‘that the whole gang of Hanapers and Chaff-waxes must be done away with, and that England has been chaffed and waxed sufficient,’ I agree.

5 thoughts on “The difficulty of obtaining a patent — circa 1850

  1. I was wondering about a deputy chaff-wax. Wikipedia says
    it was an office under the Lord Chancellor whose business it
    was to fit the wax for sealing documents issued from there.
    It was abolished in 1852.

  2. Interesting. I have read some Dickens, but had never read this before.

    I knew about the Patent Office being formed in 1853, and something about Woodcock, the first Comptroller of Patents. I also knew that the English patent system started with the Statute of Monopolies, enacted in 1623 (I have even read it), and that before 1853 one had to deal with several separate government departments to get a patent, including one rather quaintly entitled the Office of the Petty Bag, which Dickens doesn’t even mention. I wonder if what Dickens said was entirely accurate as to the actual names of the departments and how many times one had to go back and forth?

    Nevertheless, a couple of things still surprised me.

    One thing was that Dickens does mention a Patent Office located in Lincoln’s Inn, which raises a couple of questions. Firstly, was there a Patent Office before 1853 that I had never heard of? Secondly, where exactly was it? The Patent Office built in 1853 stands directly inbetween Lincoln’s Inn and Staple’s Inn, and has the date in the keystone, although later replaced by a leased building on nearby High Holborn, and then moved more recently to new purpose built premises in far away Cardiff, in Wales.

    The other intriguing part was the extra fees for Scotland. I had always thought that the English and Scottish patent systems were fully integrated after the Act of Union in 1707 (yes, Great Britain is only 69 years older than the USA!), but perhaps not. Certainly, there were only British patents from 1855 onwards (no patents issued atall in the years 1853 and 1854, apparently while the building was under construction!).

  3. David French writes:

    As a consequence of this article by Dickens, and as a consequence of the spectacular performance of American technology at the Great Exhibition in London of 1851,the Crystal Palace Exhibition, the British Patent Law Act of 1853 was passed to form the Patent Office and to introduce the concept of a provisional patent application. The fee for filing a provisional application was limited to 1 pound sterling.

  4. David French writes:

    As a consequence of this article by Dickens, and as a consequence of the spectacular performance of American technology at the Great Exhibition in London of 1851,the Crystal Palace Exhibition, the British Patent Law Act of 1853 was passed to form the Patent Office and to introduce the concept of a provisional patent application. The fee for filing a provisional application was limited to 1 pound sterling.

  5. “Thereby I say nothing of my being tired of my life, while I was Patenting my invention. But I put this: 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.”

    And in 150 years, all that’s changed is the amount of time it takes to get a patent (if indeed one is obtained).

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