Concepts, Actors and Practices from the Past to the Present
Edited by Stathis Arapostathis and Graham Dutfield
Chapter 7: Contested inventors: British patent disputes and the culture of invention in the late nineteenth century
Patent litigation has attracted scant attention from historians of electrical science and technology of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. This chapter argues that such litigation was very important in the process of technological change from the corporate to the regional and national level. In 1907, an independent and rigorous system of patent examination was established in Britain. Until that moment the courts were the institutions that hosted the assessment and evaluation of patent specifications. The new legal framework structured better filtering processes that reduced the number of disputed patents due to more thorough and complete processes of assessment of originality and validity of patent applications. Yet still, and despite the legislative changes, the law courts continued to play an important role for individuals and British and foreign companies in their management of their technologies and technological ideas and the validity of patents. In the British electrical scene the sector of electric lamps was characterized by increasing numbers of legal battles and intense confrontation about patent rights (see Table 7.1). In this chapter I unravel aspects of three court cases in the 1880s and 1890s which were far from remaining secluded in court rooms and in fact attracted the interest of the electrical engineering world and beyond. The first two cases are devoted to comparatively little known characters, Samuel Varley and St George Lane-Fox while the third case is about the well- established electrical engineer John Hopkinson and a powerful industrial concern, the British Westinghouse.
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