Guide to finding patents, based on the collections of the State Library of Victoria
Historically, the word "patent" was an abbreviation of the term "letters patent" derived from the Latin "litterae patentes", meaning "open letters". It related to a document issued by the Sovereign, usually addressed to all subjects of the realm (hence "open"), with the Great Seal of the Realm attached at the foot. The document could be read without the seal being broken.
Letters patent were used in the Middle Ages for administrative purposes, for example for the grant of titles of honour and the appointment of judges. When monopolies came to be granted for inventions, the grants were made with letters patent. By the nineteenth century, patents of invention so greatly outnumbered other letters patent, that the word "patent" came to be associated with inventions.
Source: The United Kingdom patent system: a brief history with bibliography by Neil Davenport.
For Scotland and Ireland, 1700 to 1851, see 'Patenting in Scotland and Ireland during the industrial revolution, 1700-1851' by Sean Bottonley, University of Cambridge.
Are you searching for a patent registered in Great Britain ?
Do you know?
To get started, see the Finding patents page in this guide.
The number and year of the patent are essential to know if you wish to view a patent. You can then contact staff who can order the relevant patent from our offsite store, using the patent number and year.
There are two basic steps to finding a patent: look up an index to find the patent number and year, then ask a librarian to request the patent using the number and year. There are three types of index: name (of patentee); subject and chronological.
What year is the patent? If it is from 1893 onwards, go to the Online resources box on this page. You should not need an index. If you cannot find the patent online, you can search an index. See the indexes box below for details.
Use the indexes to find the patent number and year. A librarian can do this for you if you wish. The indexes are in print at the State Library. See the indexes box on this page for more detail. Some indexes have been digitised on the Hathi Trust website. See the Digitised versions box on this page for the links to the digitised indexes.
Once you have the patent number and year, ask a librarian to request the patent from the offsite store for you. You cannot do this yourself, as it is an offsite order. The titles of the patents publications are listed on the State Library catalogue under the words "Specifications of patents" or "Specifications of inventions" - see the boxes below for the links to these publications.
• Specifications of patents - old law - 1617 to 1852 - YA 608 G79SPO
• Specifications of patents - new law - 1852 - 1883 - YA 608 G79SPN
• UK patent application - January 1985 to August 1994 - Organized by date and patent number - (YA 608 G79PAP)
• The Commissioners of patents' journal (YA 608 G79J) - 1854 - 1883
• The official journal of the Patent Office (YA 608 G79J) - 1884 - 1997
Title varies - The official journal of the Patent Office, The Illustrated official journal (patents), Official journal (patents)
• UK patents for invention [microform] : index to names of applicants [1617-1980] - Microfiche (MF 406)
• Alphabetic list of patentees of inventions, 1617-1852, B. Woodcroft - held onsite - SF 608.742 W85
• Alphabetical index of patentees and applicants for patents of invention (PER 608 G79IA) 1852 - 1885
• Name index of applicants for patents of invention : for the year - (PER 608 G79IA) 1886 - 1891
• Index to names of applicants in connection with published complete specifications (YA 608 G79IA) 1921 - 1970
• Names of applicants (YA 608 G79IA) 1971 - 1990
• Names of applicants and inventors (YA 608 G79IA) 1991 - 1997
• Subject-matter index (made from titles only) of patents of invention : from March 2, 1617 - to October 1, 1852 - (PER 608 G79IS) (Volumes 1 & 2)
• Subject-matter index of patents applied for and patents granted : for the year - (PER 608 G79IS) 1853 - 1930 (Annual Indexes - title varies)
• Patents for inventions; abridgments of the specifications (in subject classes and chronologically arranged) 1617 to 1883, in volumes 1 to 103a - (YA 608 G79A)
• Chronological (and descriptive) index of patents applied for and patents granted 1617 - 1852 & 1852 to 1875 (PER 608 G79IC)
Click on the link above to go to the Intellectual Property Office page on the National Archives UK website. It has a table showing the patent numbers between the years 1617 and 1852. It is important to give the patent number and the year when ordering these patents from State Library staff, as similar numbers were used between 1852 and 1915.
The table on the Intellectual Property Office page on the National Archives website shows the number of patent applications filed each year between 1st October 1852 and 1915. For this period, patent applications began with number 1 each year. Because of this regular repetition of numbers, it is important to provide the patent number and the year when ordering these patents from State Library staff. The number given for each year is the highest patent number for that year. Granted patents retained the same number as the application number.
Note: from 1st January 1884, generally only Granted patents were published.
Patent numbers 1916 to 1981
The Intellectual Property page on the National Archives website has the following index.
From January 1916, published patents specifications were numbered in a series starting with 100,001, separate from patent applications. After 1916, generally only Granted patents were published. Use the granted number when requesting these patents.
Those patents not granted were not published and no information on them is available. The only exception is some patent applications originating abroad and which claimed priority. Under the Patents & Designs Act 1907 (Section 91 (4), these patent applications were printed and given numbers under the six-figure series. The printing of these foreign patents ceased during World War II.
The Patents Act 1977 came into force on 1st January 1978. A new series of 7 digit patent numbers were published from 4 January 1979 to the present, beginning with the number GB2000001. The table shows the earliest patent published each year.
Digitised specifications of patents for the years 1821 to 1822 and some of the volumes from 1853 to 1875 are available on the Hathi Trust Digital Library website. Their catalogue is on this page.
Click on the link to the Specifications of inventions 1617-1875 to go to the catalogue record to find the exact years and volumes available online. You can also search the Hathi Trust catalogue using the exact title Specification of letters patent for inventions. Not every year or volume has been digitised.
Another page on the Hathi Trust website has the digitised specifications of patents for the years 1853, 1855 and 1870 to 1874. Find these years by clicking on the link Specifications....
You may like to search the Hathi Trust website further, as there are numerous digitised items here.
Espacenet is the European Patent Office online database.
Espacenet has digitised British patents from approximately 1870 to the present day..
Search options include Advanced Search and Classification Search. If you are searching for a particular patent, try Advanced Search.
Advanced Search lets you search by the title of the patent, which includes the patent keyword; name of the inventor and application number. You can sort the results by date, either ascending or descending.
Click on the title of the patent you are interested in, then click on on links to see a description of the invention, drawings and the original document
If you cannot find a nineteenth century British patent on Espacenet, try the British print indexes as explained on this research guide.
The Hathi Trust Digital Library has digitised some of the volumes of the indexes from March 2, 1617 to October 1, 1852 and a number of nineteenth century indexes after that date.
Click on the links below to go to the indexes on the Hathi Trust website.
Before the UK Patent Reform Act of 1852, separate patents were required in Scotland and Ireland
Patents 1712 - 1855 are held at the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh. Indexes are held at the British Library (Patent Enquiry Desk)
Patents 1661 - 1854 were destroyed by fire in 1922. Copies are held at the National Archives at Kew, Surrey. Indexes are held at the British Library (Patent Enquiry Desk)