Whilst the origins of patents are vague, Britain does have the longest continuous patent tradition in the world. Its origins came from the 15th century, when the Crown started making specific grants of privilege to manufacturers and traders. Henry VI granted the earliest known English patent for invention to Flemish-born John of Utynam in 1449. The patent gave him a 20-year monopoly for a method of making stained glass, required for the windows of Eton College that had not been previously known in England.
Patents since the 19th century.
The technological changes of the industrial revolution were initially served well by the British Patent system. However, by the mid-19th century it had become extremely inefficient. The Great Exhibition of 1851 accelerated demands for patent reform.
The Patent Office was established by the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852 this laid down a simplified procedure for obtaining patents of invention. Legal fees were reduced and the publication of a single United Kingdom patent replaced the issuing of separate patents for each nation of the Union. A subsequent Act in 1883 brought into being the office of Comptroller General of Patents and a staff of patent examiners to carry out a limited form of examination; mainly to ensure that the specification described the invention properly, but without any investigation into novelty.
The Act of 1902, introduced a limited investigation into the novelty of the invention before granting a patent. This required patent examiners to perform a search through United Kingdom specifications published within 50 years of the date of the application.
By 1905, to enable searching, patent specifications from 1855 to 1900 had been abridged and classified in 1,022 volumes arranged in 146 classes according to subject. By 1907, the abridgement volumes extended back to the first patent to have a number: Patent No. 1 of 1617 granted to Rathburn & Burges for ‘Engraving and Printing Maps, Plans &c’. Patent Law is now covered by the 1977 Patents Act.