The nineteenth century saw amazing advances in science and technology. Many inventions – such as railways, the telegraph, the telephone and the light bulb – were so successful that they changed the way we live. At the same time hundreds of lesser known or amateur inventors were hard at work on their ideas, many of which have long since been forgotten about or never saw the light of day. Those inventions are the subject of my new book called Inventions that didn’t change the world, published on 6 October by Thames & Hudson, which takes a humorous look at some of the more eccentric inventions registered for copyright.
Among the shelves at The National Archives are huge leather-bound tomes containing fascinating drawings of inventions registered under the 1843 Utility Designs Act. The Act gave copyright protection to the new elements of ‘useful’ designs, as opposed to purely ‘ornamental’ designs such as ceramics, wallpapers, and textiles, which had been covered by copyright since 1839. The Act came to be seen as a quicker and cheaper alternative to the notoriously expensive and convoluted patent system, which involved visits to as many as 10 different offices, with fees payable at each. A design could be registered at a cost of £10 for three years’ copyright protection, whereas a patent could cost as much as £400 for 14 years’ protection.
Smaller-scale inventors seized the opportunity to register their designs. From ventilating top hats to artificial leeches, a flying machine for the Arctic to an ‘anti-garotting cravat’, these drawings give us a unique insight into the social history of the period. If they wanted to copyright their work, the inventor had to take two identical drawings of the design to the Designs Registry at Somerset House in London, as well as providing the title of the design, explanatory text, and a description of which parts of the design were new and original. What was called the ‘object of utility’, or purpose of the design, was also described. Both copies of the drawing would be stamped with a registered design number. One would be returned to the copyright holder, or ‘proprietor’, and the other would be pasted into a huge volume of designs and retained by the Registry, part of the Board of Trade. As government records, these eventually came to The National Archives for safe-keeping.