Atlantic History Technology, Inventing, and Patenting
Aaron Graham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0354


The classic narrative of technology, invention, and patenting in the Atlantic world before 1850 focused on the industrialization of the Atlantic seaboard in Britain and the United States, with the adoption of mechanized cotton and wool textile production based on water power and then steam power, and on the development of related heavy industries. Other parts of the region appeared mainly as suppliers of raw materials, such as cotton from the American South, or as markets for the products of mechanized manufacture. While still a powerful narrative, most recent scholarship has reassessed or nuanced key elements, moving away from the traditional story of “heroic” inventors and toward more complex stories of supply and demand, including the capacity of economies and societies in the Atlantic world to supply the technical, commercial, and financial skills needed for invention and innovation, and the changing patterns of consumption and retail that created demand. Attention has also focused on innovation in other sectors, including armament production, transportation and public utilities, and the impact that innovation had upon the lives of those involved in it. Equally important has been a wider regional focus that now includes the southern territories of the Americas as important sites for innovation. Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx dismissed these areas of plantation agriculture as inefficient and irrelevant, a dead end compared to the centers of commerce and industry. Recent work has revised this by demonstrating the quasi-industrial processes required to process sugar, cotton, tobacco, indigo, and other tropical commodities; the scope for technological improvement; and the vast profits that enabled planters to invest in this technology. Leading plantation colonies such as Jamaica in the 18th century and Cuba in the early 19th century were among the first adopters of the steam engine outside Europe, where it had an equally transformative social and economic impact.

Primary Sources

Patent and copyright records remain a rich and untapped source for the history of technology and invention in the Atlantic world. English patents enrolled before the major reforms of 1852 are found at the National Archives at Kew, and those after this date are held at the British Library. Scottish patents before 1853 are held at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. Due to the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922, no records remain in Dublin, though fragmentary sources are available elsewhere. The study of British patenting before 1852 is facilitated not just by detailed guides such as van Dulken 1999, but also by a series of indices drawn up by Bennet Woodcroft, the Superintendent of Specifications at the Patent Office after 1852 and the creator of the Patent Office Library and Patent Museum (Woodcroft 1854, Woodcroft 1871), and a study of patent legislation (Johnson 2018). Patents were also widely publicized at the time, with the (much-renamed) Repertory of Arts and Manufactures (1795–1852) printing descriptions and illustrations of the most significant ones for wider consumption after 1795. Records on patenting in the British Empire before this period are more scattered, but the state of colonial patenting in 1853, just after the reform of the British patent system, was investigated and summarized by the Colonial Office in Abstract of Replies to the Secretary of State’s Circular Despatch of January 2, 1853, on the Subject of the Extension of Patents for Inventions to the Colonies (1859). The other major source of patenting in the Atlantic world before 1850 was the United States. Unfortunately, a fire at the US Patent Office in 1836 destroyed all the patents and specifications enrolled to that point, though it was possible to reconstruct some by asking inventors to submit their own copies of the specifications. Some details can also be recovered from contemporary publications, such as the effort to mirror the British one in The American Repertory of Arts, Sciences and Manufactures (1831–1832, 1840–1842). For the history of copyright, an international effort has recently assembled a comprehensive range of legislation and other materials relating to copyright in Europe and America up to 1900 in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450–1900).

  • PP 1859 (6123). Abstract of Replies to the Secretary of State’s Circular Despatch of January 2, 1853, on the Subject of the Extension of Patents for Inventions to the Colonies. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1859.

    Responses from colonial governors to a request for information about colonial patent laws circulated by the Colonial Office in 1852 during the overhaul of British patent laws, giving details about their respective arrangements.

  • The American Repertory of Arts, Sciences and Manufactures. Various editions and publishers. New York, 1831–1832, 1841–1842.

    An attempt to imitate the British Repertory with a similar survey of annual patent grants and sometimes detailed descriptions and specifications. Also called The American Repertory of Arts, Sciences and Useful Literature.

  • Johnson, Phillip. Parliament, Inventions and Patents: A Research Guide and Bibliography. London: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203702154

    Offers a comprehensive research guide for patents and inventions in the British Isles from the early modern period onward, providing records of every piece of parliamentary legislation, report, petition, debate, and question related to patent law, including in Scotland before 1707 and Ireland before 1801.

  • Primary Sources on Copyright (1450–1900).

    A comprehensive online resource containing legislation, treatises, and a range of other materials relating to the historical development of copyright law in Europe and the United States from the medieval period onward.

  • The Repertory of Arts and Manufactures. Multiple volumes and publishers. London, 1794–1852.

    Annual publication giving overviews and in some cases detailed descriptions, specifications, and plans of patents granted in England. Continues up to the reform of the British patent system in 1852. Also called The Repertory of Arts, Manufactures and Agriculture, then The London Journal and Repertory of Arts, Sciences and Manufactures, and The London Journal of Arts, Sciences and Manufactures and Repertory of Patent Inventions.

  • van Dulken, Stephen. British Patents of Invention, 1617–1977: A Guide for Researchers. London: British Library, 1999.

    Provides a clear and detailed guide to the process of finding original patents and specifications for the English, Scottish, and Irish patent systems before 1852, and the British patent system thereafter.

  • Woodcroft, Bennet, ed. Titles of Patents of Invention, Chronologically Arranged, from March 2, 1617 (14 James I) to October 1, 1852 (16 Victoria). Vol. 2. London: Queen’s Printing Office, 1854.

    A comprehensive listing of every patent of invention passed in England under the old patent system from 1617 to 1852, containing the patent number, the inventor, and a brief description of the patent. Other volumes were arranged alphabetically by inventors, by subject, and by reference.

  • Woodcroft, Bennet, ed. Patents for Inventions: Abridgements of Specifications Relating to Sugar. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1871.

    Woodcroft produced at least 103 volumes of patent inventions by sector or function. This one contained detailed (though still abridged) descriptions of significant patents passed for the milling and processing of sugar cane and the distillation of rum and other related products.

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