Coke’s Patent Law Motivated by Belief that Creative Craftsmen Were Source of Britain’s Prosperity

William Rosen discusses the genesis and significance of the world’s first patent law:

(p. 52) The Statute became law in 1624. The immediate impact was barely noticeable, like a pebble rolling down a gradual slope at the top of a snow-covered mountain. For decades, fewer than six patents were awarded annually, though still more in Britain than anywhere else. It was seventy-five years after the Statute was first drafted, on Monday, July 25, 1698, before an anonymous clerk in the employ of the Great Seal Patent Office on Southampton Row, three blocks from the present–day site of the British Museum, granted patent number 356: Thomas Savery’s “new Invention for Raiseing of Water and occasioning Motion to all Sorts of Mill Work by the lmpellent Force of Fire.”

Both the case law and the legislation under which the application was granted had been written by Edward Coke. Both were imperfect, as indeed was Savery’s own engine. The law was vague enough (and Savery’s grant wide-ranging enough; it essentially covered all ways for “Raiseing of Water” by fire) that Thomas Newcomen was compelled to form a partnership with a man whose machine scarcely resembled his own. But it is not too much to claim that Coke’s pen had as decisive an impact on the evolution of steam power as any of Newcomen’s tools. Though he spent most of his life as something of a sycophant to Elizabeth and James, Coke’s philosophical and temperamental affinity for ordinary Englishmen, particularly the nation’s artisans, compelled him to act, time and again, in their interests even when, as with his advocacy of the 1628 Petition of Right (an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights) it landed him in the King’s prisons. He became the greatest advocate for England’s craftsmen, secure in the belief that they, not her landed gentry or her merchants, were the nation’s source of prosperity. By understanding that it was England’s duty, and–perhaps even more important–in England’s interest, to promote the creative labors of her creative laborers, he anticipated an economic philosophy far more modern than he probably understood, and if he grew rich in the service of the nation, he also, with his creation of the world’s first durable patent law, returned the favor.

Source:
Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

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