The British Patent Office

When Sherlock Holmes first tells Watson about Professor Moriarty, “the Napoleon of crime,” he describes him as a gifted mathematician who once held a chair at a small university. But then “[d]ark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London.”

And there begins my tale, Moriarty Meets His Match. After sorting out the dark rumors, my next problem was to find suitable employment for my erstwhile professor. Where could an educated gentlemen find honest work in 1886?

In Her Majesty’s Service

The Patent Office at noon

Two of the three clerks in Anthony Trollope’s novel worked in the Office of Weights and Measures; the other worked in Internal Navigation (rivers.) Trollope himself worked in the Post Office while writing his dozens of works. My novel revolved around hazardous and/or fraudulent inventions, so where better to situate my protagonist than the Patent Office?

Being me, it wasn’t enough to pick an institution and leave it at that. I had to look it up. Lo and behold, there’s a book about it in my library, supporting my strong belief that there’s a book about everything.

This office, now known as the Intellectual Property Office of the United Kingdom, was established by the Patents Law Amendment Act in 1852. The building stood on a narrow street in Holborn off Chancery Lane. It was described at the time as having a “gloomy facade with massive rusticated round-arched windows above a basement, with an upper floor behind a screen of Roman Doric columns. Entrance steps led to a narrow corridor lit by two cupolas and leading to the Quality Court frontage and the Bankruptcy and Lunacy offices.” Convenient, what?

Patents were booming by the late nineteenth century. The office had need of men like my James Moriarty. Six assistant examiners were appointed in the first quarter of 1884; eighteen more later in that year. Another eight in 1885 and eight more in 1886. These jobs were much sought after: there were 200 applicants for 42 vacancies in 1884-5. You had to pass a civil-service examination to be considered.

Assistant examiners, usually graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, specialized in certain subjects. Engineers complained about them, since most would have earned degrees in the liberal arts. They insisted on “scientifically trained examiners [who] were introduced to determine whether an invention was properly the subject matter of a patent, whether its nature and the way in which it was to be carried into effect were clearly described and whether the complete specification agreed with the provisional and comprised one invention only.”

Another crucial job of the examiners was prevengint the granting of patents for existing inventions. Sorry, Mack; that mousetrap has already been built!

Moriarty’s colleagues were real people who really worked there: Moses Jackson and the poet Alfred E. Housman. Housman’s work was checking new applications for trademarks against the registers and for conformity with the law. Apparently he was pretty good at it.

A brief history of patents

The OED’s first definition of the word ‘patent’ is the oldest one: “A document conferring some privilege, right, office, title, or property.” It could be for anything in the middle ages. By the Elizabethan times, Francis Bacon found three sorts: “Patents of Old Debts, Patents of Concealments, and Patents of Monopolies.” These were often monopolies of trade, like the right to import sweet wines or to transport iron into London.

James I, under whom Bacon was Lord Chancellor, went way overboard on the granting of monopolies. The public outcry became so loud, he was forced to revoke all his previous patents and thenceforward limit them to “projects of new invention.” The goal, then as now, was to stimulate invention by giving inventors a head start on potential rewards.

This modern definition comes straight from Wikipedia: “A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a sovereign state to an inventor or assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for detailed public disclosure of an invention. An invention is a solution to a specific technological problem and is a product or a process. Patents are a form of intellectual property.”

One thing leads to another

My sources don’t give numbers for the early centuries, but by 1865, some 3,000 patent applications were being filed per year. For comparison, in the US in 2015, 325,979 patents were granted out of  629,647 applications. (US Patent Office.)

Here’s a selected list of patents granted between 1837 and 1900, from Van Dulken’s book about Victorian Inventions. The sharp-eyed reader will note that pocket protectors were invented in 1857. Not according to the Wikipedia page for pocket protectors! There credit is given to Hurley Smith, an American, in 1947. Hmph.

There are other goodies. The square-bottomed paper bag, 1867. Lawn tennis, 1874. Vending machines, 1883. The Ouija board, 1890. The brassiere, 1893. Last, the radio, in 1900.



Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. 1894. “The Final Problem,” The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. London: George Newnes, Ltd. p. 256-279.

Hewish, John. 2000. Rooms Near Chancery Lane: The Patent Office Under the Commissioners, 1852-1883. The British Library.

Spedding, James, ed. 1890. The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon. Vol. VII. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Trollope, Anthony. 1857. The Three Clerks. London: Richard Bentley.

Van Dulken, Stephen. 2001. Inventing the 19th Century: The Great Age of Victorian Inventions. The British Library.


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