Find early British patents

British patents

A guide on finding British patents from the period 1617-1899.

Patents in Great Britain 1617-1899

The British Library has the national collection of British patents and associated documentation. This guide will help researchers understand and use that part of the collection which covers the period 1617 to 1899.

A detailed list of all the British documents we have for this period is also available.

English patents 1617-1852

English patents granted before October 1852 were first printed and published in a numbered sequence in the mid-1850s. The numbered sequence runs from GB1 of 1617 to GB14359 of September 1852.

Before October 1852, details of granted English patents were simply recorded (enrolled) in the Patent Rolls at the end of a long, cumbersome and costly application process.  No numbering system was in place.  

The details recorded in the Rolls usually included the name, rank and address of the patentee, the title of the invention, a formal recitation of the terms of the monopoly (patent) granted and the date of grant.  From the 1730s onwards patentees were also obliged to file a specification which described their invention in technical detail.  

During the1850s the British patent system was subject to major reforms. As part of the reforms, English patents granted between 1617 and 30 September 1852 were identified from the Rolls, sorted into chronological order and then numbered in a single continuous sequence. The sequence runs from GB1 of 1617 to GB14359 of September 1852.

If a technical specification for any of these patents was found, then its text was transcribed in full and engravings were made of any drawings. If no specification was found, then just the details of the grant recorded in the Patent Rolls were transcribed. The transcribed text of each patent and any drawings was then printed and published as a numbered pamphlet.

It is these pamphlets, published in the mid nineteenth century, to which we refer when talking about the British Library’s collection of early English patents.

The original enrolments of early English patents and any specifications are kept at the National Archives. The British Library does have a few examples of the parchments given to English patentees at grant and a few contemporary copies of patent specifications.

Scottish and Irish patents to 1852

Printed copies of early Scottish and Irish patents are not available.

Before the reforms of the mid nineteenth century separate patent systems were in place for Scotland and Ireland. Original records relating to Scottish patents are held by the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. Original records relating to Irish patents have not survived but some records held by the National Archives contain references to Irish patents.

Although printed copies of these Scottish and Irish patents are not available  the British Library does have some indexes which are available to researchers in the Business and IP Centre Reading Room. We also have a few examples of Scottish and Irish parchments.

British patents 1852-1899

From October 1852 onwards British patents covered the whole of the United Kingdom and were printed and published regularly each week in pamphlet form.

The text of the patent document identifies the patentee and provides a technical description of the invention. In many cases drawings are also provided.
The patents were numbered in annual sequences, so it is very important when referencing patents from this period to cite both the patent number and the year to avoid confusion.

Finding and using the patents

You can see a detailed list of the English and British patents we hold at the British Library for the period 1617-1899 on our Great Britain documentation page.

If you have a patent number and year

Our electronic document store contains images of English patents from 1617 to September 1852 and of British patents from October 1852 to 1899. So, if you know the year and number of any English or British patent from the period 1617 to 1899 you can view the document and print a copy of it in any of our reading rooms.      

Most British patents from 1890 onwards are available on the European Patent Office's Espacenet database which you can access free of charge on the internet.

We do have paper copies of these patents but access to them is restricted for conservation reasons.

Searching by name or subject

If you do not know the patent year and number then you can make a search either by inventor name or by the subject of the invention.

To search across the whole period from 1617 to 1900 you will need to use the paper indexes which were published by the Patent Office from the mid-1850s onwards. Using these you can look for patents by applicant name and also by the subject matter of the invention. A complete set of these indexes is available in our Business and IP Centre reading room at St Pancras.

The most useful paper indexes  for patent name and subject searching are:
  • Applicant name indexes: a single volume covers the period 1617 to 1852, and after that there is roughly one volume per year. Applicant names are listed in alphabetical order. Each entry gives patent number, date and a descriptive title.
  • Subject matter index for the period 1617 to September 1852: the patents are grouped together by subject. These subject groups are arranged in alphabetical order and within each group the patents are listed in date order. The entry for each patent gives number, date, title and inventor name.
  • Abridgments: Each abridgment gives a concise description of the invention together with the inventor’s name, the patent title and date. There are two sets of abridgments which between them cover the period 1617-1890. Within each set, the abridgments are grouped together in a volume according to the subject of the invention (hydraulics, lamps, cookery, etc.). There is an inventor name index and detailed subject index at the front of each volume. The set which covers the earlier period does not cover all technical subjects so be aware that some patents (such as those concerning glass and cutlery) are not included.

Note: For British patents from 1890 onwards you can search the Espacenet database by name, by number and by words in the title.

How we can help

Ask our patent information specialists

Our patent information specialists know the collection very well and are always happy for you to contact them for help and advice

If you contact them they can usually make a very brief search for you. For instance they can search for the name of a single individual across all technical areas over a ten year period. If you can limit the search to a specific technical area then they may be able to make a name search over a longer period of time.  

Also, if you have a patent number but no year, or a year but no number and you can describe the invention in some detail then they may be able to identify a patent for you. It really depends on how much detail you can provide

Visit the British Library at St Pancras

If you want to make a more extensive patent search, then consider visiting the British Library and becoming a registered reader. We do recommend that you discuss your research with our patent information specialists in the reference team in advance of your visit.  

All the information you need on visiting the library and applying for a pass to use our reading rooms is here. Please read it carefully before planning your visit.

Beyond the British Library

A number of public libraries are part of the PatlibUK group and some may be able to help researchers with enquiries about early British patents. Resources vary from library to library.


Why is there no printed patent for this number?

Between 1884 and 1899 there are many numbers missing from the annual printed sequences of British patents. This is due to a change in the publication process which meant that patent applications which had been numbered but which did not progress to grant were no longer printed. So if the document you are looking for is from this period and is not present in our document store or paper set it may simply never have been printed. There are various indexes which might indicate if this is the case and our patent information specialists can help you to investigate further

Is this really a patent number?

Before 1852 English patents were not numbered. The numbers now associated with these early English patents were assigned to them retrospectively after this date.  So any number appearing on an object manufactured before this period or any number cited in a document published before this date cannot, by definition, be a patent number.

When British patent numbers are marked on objects the word “patent” (or “pat”) usually appears as well. Where a number is associated with the word “registered” or “reg." then this usually refers to a trade mark or registered design. Most records on early British registered designs are held in the National Archives. Early British trade marks are, unfortunately, very difficult to trace by number.

A number printed or engraved on an item may not be a patent number at all: it may be a model number or catalogue reference, or a part, batch or serial number. There is no single record of such numbers and it is often not possible to get any information from these unless you have already identified the manufacturer. If you have a manufacturer name then there might be some material from the company in our trade literature collection.

The number may refer to a patent granted by another national patent office.  For instance the words “brevet” or ”brev” associated with the number would suggest a French patent.  “DRP” or “DRGM” are associated with German patents while items patented in the US were often marked with the date of grant rather than a number.

Was there ever a patent for this object?

Patents cover technological innovations not specific products and often a patent protects an invention which is a component part of a much more substantial item. So an innovative mechanism for brakes may have been patented but not the vehicle into which it was fitted. Also trade or brand names rarely appear in patent specifications for the inventions with which they are first associated so a search by trade or brand name found on or with an object is unlikely to be successful.

Why can’t I find a full description of this invention?

The practice of filing a full technical specification (or description) of a patented invention developed in the early eighteenth century and became standard in the 1730s. So, when early English patents were first identified, numbered and printed in the 1850s, specifications for the patents granted before the 1730s were simply not available. In these cases the printed patent simply affirms the privileges granted to the applicant in fairly standard wording.

Where are the original enrolments of English patents held?

The original enrolments of both patents and specifications are kept at the National Archives. The British Library has a few examples of the parchments given to English patentees at grant and of specifications.  We also have a few Scottish and Irish examples. Please contact us for further details.