Long Forgotten Inventors and Inventions: Check for the Brains in Your British Family, by Sherry Irvine

Britain has maintained an account of registered inventions from the seventeenth century. Descriptions of patents and names of patentees have been gathered together in an index that covers the first 235 years–more that 14,000 ideas and nearly as many names of people with clever ideas. Some inventors we read about in history class, and others may be among our ancestors. The index is not new, in fact it was the work of one man more than one hundred and fifty years ago who was driven to action by a cumbersome, expensive and frustrating system.

The Old Way
Patents were granted to individuals or companies for new products or processes, or for improvements to existing products and processes. By the 1800s the steps to obtaining a patent had become complicated. Applicants first made a declaration before a commissioner and submitted applications in several places, to the Home Office, the sovereign, the attorney general, and other officials. The fees paid were very high, for every time the patent went into another office and obtained another signature, money was required. A patent lasted for fourteen years during which time the owner had the sole and exclusive right to work or make the patent. Up until 1835 the only way to extend the period was by an act of Parliament, an even more expensive process. A measure of the silliness and unfairness of the situation is reflected in the fact that Charles Dickens chose to write about the topic: A Poor Man’s Tale of a Patent, which appeared in October 1850 in “Household Words.”

Bennet Woodcroft
Bennet Woodcroft was the man behind the reforms. He was an inventor as well as a businessman. He had more than one invention to his credit and first-hand experience left him completely frustrated with the slow process involved in checking for earlier, related inventions, and in obtaining patents for his own.

Woodcroft became the driving force behind the complete overhaul of the patents system in the United Kingdom. He complained to the government and eventually his, and the complaints of others, produced a reaction – a commission to investigate the problem. Woodcroft appeared before this group and so impressed them with his ideas that they adopted many, and appointed him commissioner of patents, a post he held until his retirement 21 years later.

Woodcroft somehow found the time to help the system, by creating three indexes to all patents granted by the Crown from 1617 to 1852: alphabetical by surnames of inventors, chronological, and according to subjects. It is his index to inventors by name that is of interest to genealogists. He was also keenly interested in the history of machinery and under his leadership the Patent Office had its own museum. This eventually became part of the Science Museum in London. Some of its finest exhibits are the result of Woodcroft’s early collecting.

About the Index
A page of the published Bennet Woodcroft Alphabetical Index of Patentee of Inventions contains four columns. Reading across the page you see the name of the patentee, the number of the patent, date of the patent, and a brief statement of its subject matter. The numbers were consecutive from 1617, which is why this entry transcript has a low one.

Name of patentee: Sibthorp, Henry
Number: 86
Date: 2nd October 1635
Subject: Making ovens for the use of Bakers, cooks, and others, and in such a manner that they may be heated with sea-coal or other coal.

Sometimes you find a list of several inventions over a period of years by one person and occasionally you see two or three members of the same family. 

The index was originally published in 1854 and there was a modern reprint in 1969. This is in many libraries – you can check for a copy near you at WorldCat. You can also order the index on microfilm into an LDS Family History Centre.

Finding Patents
The details of a patent can be discovered a couple of ways. First try the Internet not only because the invention or the inventor may be the subject of some website, but because you may find one of Woodcroft’s volumes of patent absracts using Google Books.

The Science Reference Library, part of the British Library, holds copies of all British patents. There are also collections in other patent libraries outside London.

Genealogical Value
The index is most likely to be consulted because there is a family story about an inventor. You should also check the index if you discover an ancestor who was an engineer or manufacturer.

Information found here can lead you to newspapers and published accounts of the occupation, process or idea. The date of the patent should be used as a guide to checking for other records of the same period. In addition, make sure you check biographical sources; for example, within the Ancestry resources are 21 volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography (1921-22 edition).

Woodcroft, Bennet. Alphabetical Index of Patentees of Inventions
from  March 2, 1617 to October 1, 1852
. New York: A.M. Kelley, 1969.

A Poor Man’s Take of a Patent can be read online:

British Library


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Sherry Irvine, CG, is an author, teacher and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish and Irish family history. She is the Course Director and co-owner of Pharos Teaching and Tutoring (www.pharostutors.com), a British company. Her books include Your English Ancestry” (2d ed., 1998), “Scottish Ancestry” (2003) And Finding Your Canadian Ancestors (co-author, 2007) all published by Ancestry. Upcoming lecture locations include Ottawa, Kelowna, London and Auckland.

One thought on “Long Forgotten Inventors and Inventions: Check for the Brains in Your British Family, by Sherry Irvine

  1. Google has a specific search page for US patents.


    One day when I was searching this site to see if my patents were listed, I ran across a patent by my great-grandfather. Quite a pleasant surprise as there was no family lore about this.

    So these sources are worth checking even if you have a relative who is not known to be an inventor.

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