Innovation and enterprise blog

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Introduction

This blog is written by members of the Business & IP Centre team and some of our expert partners and discusses business, innovation and enterprise. Read more

26 September 2022

Sewing machines - who really invented them?

In the spirit of London Fashion Week, I thought I’d dedicate this blog post to looking at the early history of the sewing machine – the tool that made the mass production of clothing possible. It is also a good example of a machine which no one can quite agree on who the inventor was.

If I describe something first, have I invented it? How detailed does my description need to be? Do I need a working model to prove my invention works? Are my ideas similar to a future proven solution? Do I need a patent?

How you answer questions such as these will likely determine who you think the true inventor of the sewing machine is. So rather than tell you who I think it is, I have instead highlighted some influential early patents from within our historical IP collection so you can decide for yourself.

Focusing on patents (should) allow us to check something is new, or at least involves an inventive step. Like any invention, it is very possible that others created sewing machines similar to those described below first, but for whatever reason did not apply for a patent. Something we will briefly explore later.

 

GB 701 of 1755

In 1755, Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, a German born physician based in London, received a patent for a ‘needle for ornamenting fabrics’. The needle had a point at either end, meaning it could pass through fabric without needing to be turned. Some commentators have said the movement of the needle was via mechanical means, but the description goes into little detail.

 

Saint patent

GB 1,764 of 1790

In 1790, an English cabinet maker by the name of Thomas Saint was granted a patent for five types of varnishes and their uses, a machine for ‘spinning, twisting, and doubling the thread’, a machine for ‘stitching, quilting, or sewing’, and a machine for ‘platting or weaving’.

It is of course the machine for ‘stitching, quilting, or sewing’ that is of interest to this blog post, however it was somewhat lost in the busyness of the patent. So much so that when the Patent Office republished older patents and arranged them into new classes, it was placed into ‘wearing apparel’ rather than ‘sewing and embroidering’. It is safe to say Saint’s sewing machine was all but forgotten.

That is until 1874, when a sewing machine manufacturer called William Newton Wilson found the patent while undertaking research at the Patent Office. He had the sewing machine built and, after some adjustments to the looper, was able to prove it worked.

The machine incorporated many features still to be found on modern machines (as well as in later patents), such as an overhanging arm, a vertical needle-bar, and a feed system for the fabric.

The machine Newton Wilson built can now be seen at the Science Museum.

Saint Machine at the Science Museum

 

Fr 616 of 1804

In 1804, Thomas Stone and James Henderson received a French patent for their sewing machine, which passed a hand sewing needle back and forth through the fabric using a pair of pincers at either side (imitating the action of human fingers). It unfortunately required frequent stops in order to replace the short length of thread it used.

 

Austrian Exclusive Privilege in 1814

In 1814, Josef Madersperger, an Austrian tailor, received the early Austrian equivalent of a patent for his sewing machine. It used a double pointed needle (like Wiesenthal’s) and replicated as best it could hand sewing. In 1839, Madersperger received another patent equivalent for a machine that used an eye-pointed needle.

Neither machine was ever made publically available and Madersperger would unfortunately die destitute in an Viennese almshouse in 1850. In 1933 a memorial was erected in Resselpark in Vienna, declaring Madersperger the inventor of the sewing machine.

 

Thimonnier patent

FR 7434 of 1830

In 1830, a French tailor called Barthélemy Thimonnier received a French patent for his sewing machine which used a hooked needle to replicate hand sewing. The same year Thimonnier found himself overseeing 80 of his machines in a Paris workshop making uniforms for the French Army.

Unfortunately the success was not to last, as in 1831 all 80 machines were destroyed by a mob of angry tailors, fearful his invention was a danger to their livelihoods. Although later patents followed, Thimonnier never found further success and died in poverty at the age of 63.

One of Thimonnier’s 1830 sewing machines can also be seen at the Science Museum.

Thimonnier's machine in the science museum

 

GB 10,424 of 1844

In 1844, John Fisher and James Gibbons received a patent for, among other things, a machine for ornamenting lace. While not originally intended to be a sewing machine, it nevertheless was able to function as one, and used both an eye-pointed needle and a shuttle – both still in use on machines today.

 

US 4,750 of 1846

In 1846, Elias Howe Jr. was granted a patent for his sewing machine which used a lockstitch design (the most common mechanical stitch made by a sewing machine today, which uses two threads that ‘lock’ together). Unfortunately Howe struggled to find financial backing for his machine, and so was forced to take a job in London modifying one of his sewing machines for a buyer there.

When Howe eventually returned to America he discovered sewing machines were being sold that appeared to infringe his patent. One such sewing machine was the work of an Isaac Merritt Singer – a man whose surname would soon become synonymous with the sewing machine.

Howe sued Singer for patent infringement and won. Many more legal battles would ensue between the main sewing machine inventors and manufacturers before they would decide to come together to form the first ‘patent pool’ (and the Sewing Machine Combination) in 1856.

With my earlier disclaimer in mind, it’s worth briefly looking at an inventor who never took out a patent – a man by the name of Walter Hunt. Howe’s sewing machine is often credited as being the first to sew a lockstitch, however Hunt invented a sewing machine that did so 13 years earlier in 1833. Not wanting to put seamstresses out of work, Hunt never applied for a patent, but his machine came to light during the patent trials.

Hunt can therefore be called the inventor of the lockstitch, however Howe had the patent for it. Earning him $5 for every sewing machine sold in America. Howe soon became a very rich man.

 

Conclusion

So that was a very condensed account of the early history of the sewing machine. Several less important patents were skipped in the name of brevity, and many of the inventions that were included could have filled a blog post many times longer than this one alone. If you would like to know more then please do come in to the library to read further.

Hopefully you now have a better idea of who you think invented the sewing machine, or maybe you feel it was actually the accumulative work of many.

 

Steven Campion, Business & IP Centre intellectual property expert.

21 September 2022

Gold and the alchemy of Intellectual Property

Our obsession with one metal has inspired some of the greatest art and creativity in history. Why are we so enamoured with it?

Gold is rare, malleable, remoulded and reinvented into countless forms, throughout many different cultures and civilisations. It is also incredibly beautiful.

We extract it from the earth to form objects that are coveted and often become more valuable over time until they become treasures. This process inspires great innovation and creativity. All in the pursuit of one, precious metal.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition showcases its own collection of golden treasures. On display are manuscripts, treaties and book covers of varying ages and from different places, cultures and civilisations from all over the world.

Here we see how this valuable commodity, when combined with innovation, creates new objects that can be protected, valued and resold. As we’ll discover, it’s a kind of intellectual property alchemy.


Innovation to extract beauty


Over the centuries there have been various places where people have literally, ‘struck gold’. These have become renowned; from the ancient mines of Egypt, India and Anatolia to parts of Europe, where explorers obsessed over a mythical place in the new world called El Dorado, the city of gold. More recently, it is the 19th century that springs to mind, with its gold rushes in Australia, New Zealand and North America as well as Canada’s famous Klondike gold rush in the Yukon province, immortalised in novels and film.

Each gold rush generated new migrations, economic development and new technology. It’s here that the patent system gives an interesting snapshot into what was going on technologically as speculators were investing in sophisticated ways to extract more and more from the same mine.

A patent is an intellectual property right that will protect new and original inventions and processes. The British patent GB1853 no.997, Apparatus for Washing Earths containing Gold, is one such example. Here, two mining engineers from France sought protection for a new technique to ‘dredge’ and ‘wash’ earth and materials derived from rivers to extract more gold. We can see an illustration of how their patent worked in practice here:

Detailed black and white sketch of an invention used for mining gold

There were many other such patents at the time related to mining and metallurgy to keep up with the demands of the industrial age’s hunger for minerals and metals.


Innovation in transformation


Once sufficient quantities of gold are gathered, they can then be transformed into objects of various kinds. How the gold is used has inspired many different techniques over time that have lasted through to today. The use of gold leaf is over 5,000 years old. Ancient Egyptians developed techniques to hammer gold into a thin layer, which created just the same appearance as the solid material but with a more economical use.

Gold leaf can also be finely ground into gold paint combined with a pigment to create ‘shell gold’. Again, another economical use of gold which means that the gold, in its leaf and shell forms, can be used in as varied works as wooden sculptures to gilded porcelain to illustrated manuscripts; such as the British Library’s Harley Gospels.

But the value is not just in the commodity, it’s in the artistic creation. Many jewellers have registered designs for unique pieces made of gold and other precious metals. A well-known brand like Bulgari have a number of watches registered as a design, presumably as they are unique signature pieces of great value to the brand and its design heritage. Here is one such UK registered design:

Extravagant Bulgari gold watch with diamonds


Main illustration for design number 80800720005000


Registered design is an intellectual property right that gives companies or individuals the right to protect the appearance of a product, such as its shape or pattern. These are ordinarily for more than one piece that is in production.

But what about one of a kind creations using gold? Can they also acquire extra protection and value?


The golden rule of copyright


Each of the works on display in the Gold exhibition is a unique work of craftsmanship and art. Among the most modern is an Art Deco binding by Pierre-Émile Legrain (1889– 1929) of Colette’s La Vagabonde Paris, 1927. Like nearly all of Legrain’s work, they are one-off, original creations and so are automatically protected by copyright at the time of creation. You can call it the golden rule of copyright: if you create an original work it’s automatically yours to own (or sell). However, as Legrain died over 70 years ago, his work is now in the public domain so can be copied and reused. However, this doesn’t lessen the value of his originals, which sell at impressive prices at auction due to their recognised skill and scarcity.

Intricate art deco style artwork using circular shapes. Gold in colour with accents of blue and white.

Pierre-Émile Legrain binding on Colette, La vagabonde Paris, 1927. British Library, C.108.w.8


All that glitters isn’t exactly gold


Gold is so valuable and treasured that anything associated with gold, almost unconsciously takes on this value, conveying a meaning that taps into our shared cultural experience and memory. This is where the modern world of branding has lifted this golden association and taken it into new places, in every kind of trade conceivable!

What do you think of, when you hear ‘golden arches’?

A search on existing registered trade marks is a fascinating look at how everybody wants to be associated with all that’s golden. There are over 1,000 trade marks that begin with the word, ‘gold’. From estate agents to media companies, the tourism sector to restaurants, to name but a few.

This goes to illustrate just how we love all things golden, that the value of a trade mark and its reputation is enough for businesses to invest in their brands with the hope of one day selling or licensing their name. This is IP alchemy taken to another level!


Why gold will always hold its value


But it’s not just the value of gold as a commodity, it’s the versatility of gold that exponentially increases its value. Its value may be in a beautiful jewellery design, a one-off work of art that features gold, an invention to find more gold or the power of association that makes us love a brand or business.

Gold carries a symbolism seen in every culture and time. It’s been considered sacred and it’s been considered profane. It’s inspired the best of our creativity (and sadly the worst of our greed). It is truly timeless and its varying forms are endless.

So next time you see anything golden, remember there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to its value. There’s creative alchemy, and sometimes a little IP.

Jeremy O'Hare, Business & IP Centre IP expert

 

18 July 2022

IP Corner: Breaking the News with groundbreaking technology

News and technology have always needed each other. A history of breaking the news is also a history of the groundbreaking innovations used to deliver it.

Behind the incredible stories and newspapers that published them, in the British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition, is also the story of the complex inter-relationship between publishers, audiences and the society that delivered the innovations behind it.

For the last couple of centuries publishers having been finding new audiences and utilising new technologies to accomplish just one thing; to get news and information in front of people’s eyes in a way that’s commercially sustainable.

Here is a small selection of the technological innovations protected at the time by patents to enable them to do it.

Pre-industrial to industrial printing

China and later Europe lead the way in pre-industrial printing and publishing. But methods of creating and printing text were still comparatively labour intensive. The Gutenberg Press helped to mechanise the process but still relied on hand presses. Nonetheless it helped to satisfy the demands of a growing literate class hungry for new ideas and knowledge.

But it wasn’t until a few centuries later that we had the beginnings of the industrial age and the first machine powered printers. The limitations of hand presses precluded any possible daily newspaper from circulating widely. But between 1810 and 1814 came a breakthrough with German inventor Frederick Koenig’s ‘Printing Machine’ (patent GB 1810 3321) along with a number of other related patents.

The use of the word ‘machine’ itself is noteworthy, as it was a steam powered cylinder press. Some British investors interested in new printing technology who backed Koenig were rewarded with a machine that doubled print volume to 800 impressions per hour on previous technology. The door was now open for subsequent print machinery to develop.

Image from 1810 3321 Printing Machines. Koenig’s Specifications
Image from 1810 3321 Printing Machines. Koenig’s Specifications

A ready reading audience

By the middle of the 19th Century the first industrial society was emerging in Great Britain with similar changes in the US and Europe. Massive social changes were underway, among them the urbanisation of populations servicing the technologies of the industrial revolution.

Large populations within a comparatively small space meant distribution of information was able to be quicker and more efficient. Furthermore, other technologies and services such as the railway, canal network and the postal service meant a greater interconnecting of people, cities, towns and regions. News could be spread faster and the mass production of newspapers to a mass audience became a reality.

The technology enabled it and publishers, sensing a business opportunity, financed the capital to achieve it. Among the many emerging printing technologies of the time was British inventor, Augustus Applegath, and US inventor, Richard M Hoe.

Applegath can claim credit for inventing the machine that The Times of London was printed on. His invention replaced the previous flatbed printer and the new model was able to print on both sides simultaneously using a rotary technique. This enabled The Times to produce 4,200 prints per hour. A marked improvement in copies and also cost efficiency enabling the paper to expand its reach and influence.

Image from patent GB1846 11505 Printing Machines – Applegath’s Specification
Image from patent GB1846 11505 Printing Machines – Applegath’s Specification

Following close behind Applegath was Roe’s, Improvement in Rotary Printing Presses, (US patent 5199, 1847). Publisher’s put it to good use and bought the technology. Roe’s invention was affectionately known as the ‘lightning press’, generating 8,000 papers per hour. Subsequent improvements meant newspapers could be printed on both sides as well as cut and folded. By the 1870s, technology meant the modern newspaper industry as we knew it for the 20th Century, was born.

Richard M Hoe’s Improvement in Rotary Printing Presses, US 5199, 1847
Richard M Hoe’s Improvement in Rotary Printing Presses, US 5199, 1847

The golden age of newspaper printing

The early 20th Century was the golden age of newspaper publishing. The market had matured as huge audiences could be reached. Information could be passed around the world quicker with established communication technologies such as the telegraph and the hunger for daily news was now insatiable. Publishers, now an emerging breed of media barons, could consolidate their ownership over various titles as circulation figures kept rising.

The business model was focused on advertising revenue, keeping the cost of a single paper as low as possible for the consumer. This meant papers could be sold cheaply, or in the eventual case of local papers, delivered freely. All audiences in society had a paper to read, whether it be a broadsheet, red top or somewhere in between.

In the meantime, marginal improvements in technology ensured continuous profitability for the industry. A 1967 US patent (3,314,626) part submitted by the Hearst Publishing Company, essentially improves on the efficiency of paper use in large rolls. The print industry was certainly as efficient as it could be, however, other emerging media technologies began to have their impact.

Mass media and the internet

With radio and TV increasingly dominating the dissemination and delivery of news, advertisers could see their spend more effectively used through these mass media channels.

Scoops, splashes and investigative pieces still kept print media in the public attention and the value of local print news held steady over much of the second half of the 20th Century. However by the year 2000, advertising revenue for newspapers hit their peak and within ten years had sunk to below 1950 levels.

By the turn of the 21st Century, a now established technology called the internet, meant words on a page could now become words on a screen. News could be instantly delivered by newer and smarter ‘reading devices’, or what we now call smartphones and tablets.

The challenge of physical distribution of written content was now history; digital meant instant, anytime, anywhere. The 20th Century newspaper industry now had to become 21st. Some publications have managed the transition to newer forms and different business models. Many haven’t.

News Corp UK & Ireland [GB] patent application EP2747031A1, a method of publishing digital content, 2012, is a fascinating example of an established print media company innovating in the face of rapid technological changes, in this case with tablet formats. The patent attempts to recreate the newspaper column, as a reading experience, to the tablet.

Illustration from patent application EP2747031A1 A method of publishing digital content. News Corp UK & Ireland Ltd [GB], 2012
Illustration from patent application EP2747031A1 A method of publishing digital content. News Corp UK & Ireland Ltd [GB], 2012

From one challenge to another

At the outset, all of this innovation was focused on solving one challenge; to get as many eyes as possible reading news and information at a price affordable to them and the publisher. The appetite was there and without doubt, technology over the 19th and 20th Century delivered to the audience’s needs.

The challenge of the 21st century is now not distributing content but holding attention. With printed news, posts, tweets and images bombarding us daily through our devices, could there be new innovations enabling us to see what we really want to see? This is the new and emerging business model of the tech companies who now have the lion’s share of advertising revenue.

How will print respond? And are there new innovations around the corner, and new audiences to engage with? Surely, there must be. The news isn’t broken yet.

Jeremy O'Hare, Business & IP Centre IP expert