Guide to finding patents, based on the collections of the State Library of Victoria


The system of granting patents in the Australian colonies is based upon British law, and can be traced back to the English Statute of Monopolies of 1623, and the first "modern" patent law enacted in Britain in 1852.

Prior to the colonial states enacting their own legislation in the mid 19th century and forming their own Patent Offices, inventors applied to England for patent registration and protection.

When legislatures were established in the Australian colonies, people could apply (petition the parliament) for a patent to be granted by the Governor of the colony, by way of a Private Bill. The first of these was South Australian Private Act No.1 of 1848, granted to Andrew John Murray of Adelaide, S.A. for "An improved windlass", on the 20th June 1848, for a period of 10 years.  Several other Private Acts were granted in South Australia prior to the South Australian Patent Act of 1859; and several Private Acts for patents were granted in Western Australia.

The first patent act in Australia, other than private acts, was introduced into New South Wales in 1852 (coming into force on 10th January 1854).

Victoria proclaimed its first Patent Act in 1854, with the length of the grant being for 14 years

The administration of the States Patents Acts (NSW, Victoria, Queensland, SA, WA and Tasmania) was transferred to the Commonwealth from 1 June 1904

vic patent 1033

Victorian Patent Number 1033 of 1867 - John Phillips (Mining Surveyor) St.Arnaud, Victoria

An invention for "An improved apparatus for separating metallic ores from gangues, and the metals from ores and gangues"


Monopolies for inventions have been in existence since the beginning of the 14th century.  The first Patent Law was enacted in Venice in 1474.

The first patent for an invention was in Italy in 1421 when a three year grant was given to Filoppo Brunelleschi for "some machine or kind of ship", for a period of three years. 

The Senate of Venice granted several monopolies to foster new ventures and invention, and numbered over 100 by 1550.

The Venetian system was confirmed by statute in 1474, the first patent law, giving an inventor exclusive rights for ten years and imposed fines for infringement.  It stipulated that the Government was free to use the invention.  This system spread to other European countries and to England.

Patents were being granted in France and Germany during the 1500's. 

A basic principle of modern patent law, that an invention must be fully disclosed so as to benefit society, was introduced by King Henry II of France in 1555.

The description of the patent has become known as the specification.

Patent laws were enacted in: 

  • France 1791
  • Russia 1812
  • Prussia 1815
  • Belgium 1817
  • The Netherlands 1817
  • Spain 1820
  • Bavaria 1825
  • Sardinia 1826
  • Vatican State 1833
  • Sweden 1834
  • Wurtemberg 1836
  • Portugal 1837
  • Saxonia 1843


In England, the first patent was granted in 1449 to John of Utyman, and covered the manufacture of a type of stained glass (used in the windows of Eton College). 

Monopolies continued to be granted by the Crown, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) there were many abuses of the royal privilege. 

On his succession in 1603, James I revoked all previous patents and introduced a new system which produced the first "modern" patent in 1617. 

Because of continued abuse, Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies in 1623, which protected new inventions for a 14 year period. 

This was the beginning of the current patent system with the longest period of continuous operation. 

Patents granted prior to 1852 were not numbered and not published, though the details of some were printed in journals, such as the Repertory of Arts. Publication of British patents began in 1852, with 14,359 patents granted up to that date being published in the 1850's, beginning with Number 1/1617.

Early Austalian patent legislation

Private Acts

The first patent acts in the Australian Colonies, were private acts.

Several private acts were registered South Australia and Western Australia.

Australian Colonial Legislation

Victoria - 1854

NSW - 1854

Queensland - 1884

Western Australia - 1872

South Australia - 1859

Tasmania - 1858

Australian Legislation

Commonwealth Patents Act - 1904

Colonial patent applications

Australian Colonial Patent Applications

Victoria - (1854-1904) - 21,428 applications

New South Wales - ( 1854-1904) - 16,804 applications

Queensland - (1860-1904) - 8,670 applications

Western Australia - (1863-1904) - 4,857 applications

South Australia - (1848-1904) - 9,245 applications

Tasmania - (1858-1904) - 4,052 applications

Useful inventions

Many inventions have resulted in economic and social change, for example:

Improvements in combined cultivators and seed sowers. Patent number 4655 of 1912. Inventor: Alexander Fraser. Agent: Hugh Victor Mckay. You can find the full specification on the IP Australia website, using the AUSPAT database.  The AUSPAT format for the patent number and year is 1912004655.  You can search AUSPAT with a quick search, structured  search or advanced search.

Improved sound processor for Cochlear implants Patent number 2000068111 Inventors: Graeme Milbourne Clark and David Bruce Grayden. This patent specification is on the AUSPAT database on the IP Australia website.

Polynucleotide probes  DNA fingerprinting technique. British patent number GB2166445 (A)  Application filed 14 Oct. 1985 and published 8 May 1986. Inventor: Alec John  Jeffreys. This patent can be found on the Espacenet website.


United States

In the United States, the first patent was granted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641 to Samuel  Winslow for a method of making salt.  Of the original 13 colonies, only North Carolina did not grant any patents.

In 1787 the United States Constitution gave Congress the power to grant patent rights. 

The first United States patents act was on 10th April 1790, with major revisions in 1793 and 1836. 

The first American patent granted under this act was on 31st July 1790 to Samuel Hopkins for "making Pot and Pearl Ashes".

American patents from 1790 to 1836 were unnumbered and were known as "name, date patents".

From 1836, they were numbered from No.1 onwards. 

Under the 1836 act, the first numbered patent was issued to John Ruggles for a new design for traction wheels for steam locomotives.