Owning and Disowning Invention

Partners and collaborators

Department of Historical Studies, School of Humanities, University of Bristol

Postgraduate students

Mr Berris Charnley, Mr Jon Hopwood-Lewis


The aim of the project was to provide a historical understanding of how intellectual property (IP) has functioned in innovative technical disciplines between 1880 and 1920. It explored the relationship between developments in the British patent system and in three important areas of inventive activity in this period - electrical engineering, aviation and plant breeding. In particular our research historicizes contemporary concerns over patents, licences and secrecy in science by showing how attempts to solve scientists' and engineers' problems in managing their intellectual property were addressed in Britain before, during and immediately after Word War I. Patent disputes were examined to unravel the implications of legal procedures for the public perceptions of the authority and trustworthiness of scientists and engineers. Likewise, the 'pure' and 'applied' science dichotomy was closely scrutinized to understand how that terminology came to be the common yet contested taxonomy in the British discourse on technical creativity.


The project has developed a strong impact programme including the maintenance of this site and several public presentations. In June Berris Charnley gave a presentation for the National Institute of Agricultural Botany's 2011 History Day. A video presentation recorded at the event is available here.

Publications and outputs

A selection of presentations given by project members can be found here


An international conference, Managing Knowledge in the Techno-Sciences, 1850-2000 was held at the University of Leeds, 5-8 July 2010. See here for the final programme and here for the original call for papers. A review of the conference by Sally Frampton (UCL) can be found here. The opening presentation from Prof. Gooday can be downloaded here. Photos of the event and an audio file of Mario Biagioli's Plenary Lecture, What has Happened to 'Discovery' and 'Invention'? Intersecting the Discourse of Patent Law and Science Studies, can be viewed here. Further pdfs from the event can be downloaded here.


A workshop was held in Leeds in March 2009, see here for the programme


A new research network on intellectual property and the biosciences, emphasizing historical and science-policy perspectives, is currently in development in collaboration with colleagues at Yale, Harvard, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, CERMES in Paris and elsewhere. For the network's website, click here. A series of videos produced by the network can be found here.

Project website