Historical research

What information can you find in old patents?


Patents chart the history and development of technology and innovation. All subject areas are represented, from jet engines to teabags, from genetics to mousetraps. The first patents that we know of were monopolies granted for skills and trades in order to encourage their growth, rather than for inventions.

While an early patent was granted in England in 1449 the first published patent documents didn't appear in this country until the 1850s. However, many patents were retrospectively published so that patent number 1 was dated 1617. 

What can I find out from old patents?

Although early patents simply affirmed the priveleges of the applicant, the amount of information describing the workings of the invention itself steadily improved becoming, in many cases, highly detailed descriptions and often included diagrams.

  • It was a requirement that the name of the inventor should be indicated on the front of the document, although this was sometimes ignored when the applicant was a company.
  • Address details of the inventor at the time of the publication of the patent were given. This is often used as a means of tracing the movement of particular inventors or companies.
  • The profession or occupation of the inventor is frequently given and this was particularly the case between the eighteenth century and about 1920.
  • Very occasionally, genealogical information was included in the patent specification. Although very rare, clues as to other family members and friends has been traced in this way.
  • If diagrams were published with the text of the patent, these could be highly detailed and sometimes quite artistic.


Can old patents be traced easily?

    Quite often, no. Even if you have what appears to be a patent number the situation can turn out to be less clear than it would seem. Searching old patents tends to be time consuming. Success is more likely the more information you have on the patent you are trying to trace.

What historical resources are available at the Business & IP Centre Leeds?

  • Name indexes of GB patents from 1617
  • Name indexes of US patents from 1894
  • Abridgements of GB patents from 1855 with some from earlier years. Brief descriptions of the patents usually arranged in subject order.
  • Subject classes. For older patents these tend to be very broad but can sometimes enable cross-referencing between periods.
  • Official Journal of the Patent Office (formerly the Commissioners of Patents Journal) from 1856. Brief details of applications made, grants and lapses. Previous to 1977 patents were only published if granted so application details from the Journal may give some clues in these situations.
  • Reports of Patent Cases from 1884. Detailed coverage of patent disputes which came to court.