A World of Invention

Panagram system of reading and writing for the blind in the Patented exhibition

Panagram system of reading and writing for the blind in the Patented exhibition

Fletcher Wallis is a physicist with a penchant for patents. His collection of corkscrews is formidable and his knowledge of their historical development is gathered in British Corkscrew Patents from 1795, published in 1997 by Vernier Press. It is the ingenuity and imagination of inventors that captivates Fletcher, and in areas far broader than gadgets for opening bottles of wine.

Having given up life as a professional atomic physicist in Oxfordshire, Fletcher has spent the past 30 years or so dealing in antiques from the history of science and technology, with a particular expertise in patent inventions. He buys and sells objects from a stall in London’s Portobello Road, but has also built up an impressive collection of his own; a small museum’s worth perhaps.

It is with a hand-picked selection of some of these inventions, drawn from the 18th and 19th centuries, that Fletcher approached the Museum proposing a small, temporary exhibition on patent inventions. Working with Fletcher, and refining his selection for display, we created Patented, a temporary exhibition running in the Museum’s entrance gallery from 15 January – 10 March 2013.

Patented is a small exhibition – only 14 objects are on display – and so by no means provides a comprehensive account of British patent inventions during the 18th and 19th centuries. But the curious variety of devices on display, along with a few biographical nuggets about their creators, does paint a nice picture of the many ways that inventors sought to make a living by conceiving, and protecting, their ideas.

By granting ‘letters patent of invention’ to an individual, the government aimed to encourage and protect new industrial inventions by giving monopoly rights to produce an invention without direct competition for a period of time. Of course, this didn’t stop people copying, ripping off or just simply lying about their ‘patent’ in order to get a commercial advantage. Not surprising, perhaps, given the onerous bureaucratic hoop-jumping needed to secure patents: up to nine separate visits to various government offices in London, with a substantial fee levied at each, before 1852.

Nonetheless, all but two of the objects displayed in Patented were definitely granted monopoly by the Patent Office. Of the two, a set of facsimiles of horses’ mouths by J. C. Chawner claims to have been patented, although no record exists; and safety stirrups by William Lennan from around 1850 may have been patented in Ireland, but again the record remains elusive, if it ever existed.

The exhibition features an example of the 1784 Bramah Lock, created by Joseph Bramah and displayed in the company’s shop in Piccadilly as a ‘Challenge Lock’. “The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced.” So read the panel in the shop’s window. It was 67 years before American locksmith Arthur Charles Hobbs managed, after 51 hours spread over 16 days, to successfully pick the lock. Hobbs subsequently marketed his own patent inviolable lock. So it goes.

There’s also a very attractive, if devilishly complex, system of reading and writing for the blind, pre-dating Louis Braille’s system by 22 years. Patented in 1813, John Casson’s Panagram uses little wooden blocks, where each face is a different shape and each orientation of the face represents a different letter. If you’re mathematically sharp you’ll already have realised that’s only 24 letters (six faces, four possible orientations of each). The remaining two letters are distinguished by the addition of a little pin. It is not easy to use. But there is a secret message written in ‘Panagramese’ on display in the Museum… Why not visit and see if you can crack it?

And while you’re there check out the strange breathing apparatus, the first stirrups to release the hapless falling horse rider and, of course, the world’s second patented corkscrew, created by the 19th-century Birmingham entrepreneur Sir Edward Thomason.

Fletcher Wallis can be contacted at fletcherwallis@btinternet.com.

By Scott Billings, Exhibitions Assistant.