Patent Drawings from the 19th Century: A Journey Back to the Future of Technology
"Looking through patent drawings is just like time travel," is a quotation from the American patent lawyer Kevin Price in an article in Der Spiegel. Price, whose fascination for patent drawings led him to author a cultural history of patent drawings ("The Art of the Patent", 2011), states at the same time that there is a "decline of this art form". He describes how inventors used to create graphically rich patent designs, while those of today are rather "callous, dry".
Incidentally, the German word "Patent" was borrowed from the French word "patente" for "licence, trade certificate" only two hundred years ago. Before the development of the modern patent system in the 19th century, however, this word primarily used to mean a "certificate for certain rights".
Not everything can be patented, though, as a decision made by the Bundesgerichtshof in 1969 states that a distinction must be made between "inventions" and "discoveries". Inventions that can be patented are "technological instructions for methodical action that have causally clear success and can be brought about reproducibly when controllable natural forces are applied without the interposition of intellectual activities" (Wikipedia). This rather cumbersome sentence could be replaced with "technical innovation" - from the dish washer to the microwave or the street lamp, anything that works using the power of nature can be patented.
On the other hand, "discoveries" are realisations of how something works and may not be patented. It is also not possible to patent aesthetic creations, scientific theories, mathematical methods or even games.
The history of the patent and patent law can be traced back to 720 BCE. Athenaeus of Naucratis reports that in the wealthy colony of Sybaris in southern Italy, cooks had the exclusive right to a recipe they created for one year. The first patent act, as we know it today, was passed in Venice in 1474 with England following in 1624 with their Statute of Monopolies and France in 1791. Germany did not begin to regulate patents until the beginning of the 19th century.
However, the first patent dispute proceedings already took place in 1593. The dispute was over a "newerfunden Mühlwerckh (reinvented mill machinery)" for grinding semi-precious stones in Nuremberg. Eight years later, the same plaintiff obtained injunctive relief and was awarded ten guilders for the same patent and the same dispute.
Implementing German patent law was not easy. In 1864, the German trade boards still demanded the abolition of patents within the scope of the "anti-patent movement". It wasn't until Chancellor Bismarck himself advocated a patent law that the draft was able to go into effect on 25 May 1877.
He was persuaded by the arguments laid out by the inventor and industrialist Werner von Siemens from Chemnitz. He pointed out to Bismarck that German products had a global reputation for being "cheap and poor". Patent law helped strengthen German industry and raised its standing in the world. German quality products were born.
In the holdings of the Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, a multitude of patent drawings can be found - in particular dating from the 19th century. Mouse and rat traps, caloric engines and artificial body parts are just some of the examples that we present here.
Patent for a new type of mouse and rat trap by Hahn, a slater in Heilbronn (1860)
The patent by the slater named Hahn in Heilbronn depicts with striking graphic skill how this new type of mouse and rat trap may appear. What is less obvious is how the trap actually works. An interesting aspect of the patent drawings is that the inventor's occupation is always mentioned as well. The infestations of rats and mice common in attics of the 19th century may have been the inspiration for this slater's idea.
Description and drawing of a caloric engine by W. Schmidt, a mechanic from Heidelberg (1845)
The "caloric engine" illustrated here by W. Schmidt, a mechanic from Heidelberg, was patented in 1845. Today, the term "hot air engine" is used and, along with the steam engine, it is one of the oldest heat engines. At the beginning of the 20th century hot air engines were replaced by combustion engines and electric motors. Until that time, hot air engines powered various machines in smaller sized industrial units (Source: Deutsches Museum).
Patent for an improved water wagon by H. Kurtz, a bell founder in Stuttgart (1856)
Patent for an artificial hand by Wilhelm Müller from Stuttgart (1868)
The knowledge of whether the artificial hand by the inventor Wilhelm Müller from Stuttgart ever made it into the line-up of German quality products has not been passed down.
Patent drawings in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek