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From Velcro to zero: a history of patents

  • Story Highlights
  • The British Library holds some 40 million patents, dating back nearly 400 years
  • The archive contains world firsts and many more ideas that have been forgotten
  • Patents include the original designs for Velcro, the Camcorder and flight simulators
  • The earliest patents were grants bestowed by the crown in the 15th century
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By Paul Willis
For CNN
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(CNN) -- When the English inventor Henry Bessemmer launched his extravagant cure for sea-sickness in 1875 it must have seemed like a sure thing.

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Steve van Dulken: a walking encyclopaedia of patent facts and anecdotes.

After all, the specially designed steam boat was the work of a man renowned as the creator of a process for steel-making that had made him rich and famous in his lifetime, and which still bears his name to this day.

Bessemmer's boat had at its centre a spherical "swinging saloon" that moved independently of the ship, staying comfortably level even as the rest of the boat rocked in the swell.

He was so sure of his idea that he not only patented the concept, but also financed the entire venture himself.

But his confidence turned out to be misplaced, and his ship sailed into troubled waters.

"Inventors are often too close to the thing to be able to think clearly about it," says Steve van Dulken, warming to his subject.

We are leafing through the archives of the British Library in central London where van Dulken has worked as a researcher for the last 20 years, looking after the library's exhaustive collection of patents -- some 40 million, dating back nearly 400 years.

It is a unique position that has allowed him a close up view of some of the greatest innovations in history, and of the millions of others -- like Bessemmer's -- that faded into obscurity.

He talks at a gallop, clearly a man still in love with his work: "The advantage of history is that you get to see the bigger picture," he says.

In Bessemmer's case, this is Patent no. 3707, an original ink drawing of his design that even features a sketch of a refined-looking Victorian gent reclining in comfort inside the saloon, a valise and umbrella at his side.

In the event, the steam boat's maiden voyage across the English Channel was a disaster: Either through faulty design or bad engineering it didn't work, and the mood of green-faced passengers can't have improved much when the boat finished its journey by crashing into a pier at the French coastal port of Calais.

It made just one more trip before it was retired quietly from service.

The designs for Bessemmer's steam boat are held deep in the library's vaults alongside such historical firsts as the original patents for Velcro, the Camcorder and the first flight simulator, dating from 1931.

If the archive provides a history of man's irrepressible capacity to invent, then van Dulken is its embodiment -- a walking encyclopaedia of patent facts and anecdotes.

Try this one for starters: Did you know that when he wasn't busy remaking our universe with E=MC2, Albert Einstein was working on his own design for a refrigerator? Or how about an 1849 patent for a method for getting paddle steamers across shallow water, courtesy of a then little known U.S congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

Yet van Dulken is quick to point out that the library's collection is more than just a fascinating window on the past.

Through its Business and Intellectual Property Centre, the library steers a course to the present. The centre offers workshops and seminars led by experts for today's generation of inventors, helping them to navigate the vast archive to draw inspiration from the past.

"We help them find out if their idea already exists, and give them advice on how to develop it and protect it," van Dulken told CNN.

Although no one country can claim for certain to be the originator of the concept, Britain has the longest continuous tradition of patents, the earliest dating from the 15th century when the Crown started making specific grants of privilege to manufacturers and traders.

The concept was later widened to include protection for an individual's intellectual property rights.

In a modern and competitive business environment, these rights often need to be defended to the hilt. "You have to be utterly determined," says van Dulken. "Ideas can and are stolen. This is difficult to grasp for many inventors who are not natural business people."

One person who learned the hard way is Mandy Haberman.

A mother-of-three from the southern English county of Hertfordshire, Haberman came up with the Anywayup cup, a beaker for toddlers that could be thrown around without spilling its contents. The cup has revolutionized the market, notching up sales of around 10 million a year and turning Haberman into a successful entrepreneur.

Success has not come without its costs, however. Haberman fought and won a long court battle with rival company, Jackel International that brought out a similar product that she said infringed her patent.

She said when she was first developing the cup, the patent archive proved an invaluable resource. "I was down there an awful lot," Haberman says. "There's no point spending money on something if its already out there. You need to do your research."

A sound business head is no guarantee of success though. Market forces, social trends, even a world war can all conspire against the aspiring innovator.

According to van Dulken, the number of patent applications typically drops off during periods of economic stagnation. During the Second World War, figures dipped significantly as the opportunity to make money from a patent was reduced by the conflict -- most new ideas of any merit to the war effort were simply taken and used without payment.

Looking at worldwide figures for patents today, an inverse trend can be seen.

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Applications lodged via the Patent Cooperation Treaty for 2007 show that while the U.S. continues to provide more patents than any other country -- 52,000 for the year -- the economic boom in China has led to a flourishing of ideas there. Applicants from China grew by 38 per cent, putting it seventh in the world rankings.

In total there were 156,100 applications around the world in 2007 -- a record number. How many of these ideas are destined to soar like the jet engine or sink like Bessmmer's ship? Only time will tell. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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