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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 340-341

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Book Review

British Patents of Invention, 1617-1977: A Guide for Researchers

British Patents of Invention, 1617-1977: A Guide for Researchers. By Stephen Van Dulken. London: The British Library, 1999. Pp. xii+211. £39.

Stephen Van Dulken intends this handbook as a remedy for the neglect of the valuable information about inventions that is contained in patent specifications. Henceforward, nobody can plead ignorance of how to identify, locate, or interpret any of the two million British patent specifications published before 1977. Seven chapters clearly explain the historical background of the patent system and legislation, the patenting procedure, the specification, people in the patent system, and how to search for a patent by number, name, and subject. A substantial appendix alerts researchers to the holdings of the British Library, the Patent Office, the Public Record Office, and selected libraries in Britain and overseas. A briefer one issues a [End Page 340] necessary caution about some of the pitfalls of using patent statistics uncritically; other quirks are identified at appropriate points in the text. There is a valuable bibliography of historical works and contemporary advice and criticism, and this is supplemented in the first chapter by lists of statutes and the main government committees and commissions. Regrettably, those who venture into the maze of patent litigation will still have to boldly go without Van Dulken's expert guidance, other than bibliographical references.

Although the guide begins in 1617 (the date from which Bennet Woodcroft began the retrospective publication of patents in the mid-nineteenth century), it is the period after 1852, when a dedicated Patent Office was established, that is most comprehensively covered. This is probably justifiable on the grounds that there are several specialist monographs and a number of articles devoted to explicating the complex workings of the unreformed system; moreover, all save 14,359 of the two million patents were obtained after September 1852.

There are a few errors of detail. For example, although it was indeed suggested in 1713 that the Royal Society of London should scrutinize applications, this was never effected. And it was, in fact, rare for a Quaker to be so described in a patent application--it was in "affirming," rather than swearing on oath, that they identified their religion.

Nothing, however, should detract from the gratitude owed Van Dulken. If only this invaluable handbook had been in print when I first began to study the British patent system! Happily it is not entirely too late: this is a rich source of information for even the experienced researcher.

Christine MacLeod

Dr. MacLeod, senior lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Bristol, is the author of Inventing the Industrial Revolution: The English Patent System, 1660-1800 (1988).

Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.



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