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Introducing engineering
Introducing engineering

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3 Engineering to rule

The invention of new products or processes lies at the heart of industrial activity, producing new devices or ways of making products which make a vital contribution to economic success in the world. Engineers and designers want to ensure that any new development they make is protected from unscrupulous exploitation. A new product, a new mechanism or a new technique can be extremely valuable in the marketplace because it gives the inventor a monopoly over its exploitation. There would be little incentive for invention and innovation if a new development could instantly be copied and marketed by anyone with the manufacturing capability.

Hence the existence of patents. In this section we will look at the system of patents, in the context of how they are developed and how they can be used to protect an idea or a product from infringement. The box on Patents provides a brief history.


The patent system as we use it today dates back to Elizabethan and Jacobean England, when the government wanted to provide a monopoly for innovators. But the idea of patents is much older, and goes back to at least the reigns of Edward II and III (the latter died in 1377).

An example of an early patent is the grant for the manufacture of worsted cloth that was made in 1315 to the town of Worstead in Norfolk. The remit of the patent was at that time much wider than just newly invented products (worsted being widely known before the grant of a patent), and extended to whole branches of industry (such as mining). But this meant the system could be abused by monopolists imposing artificially high prices in the total absence of competition: a recurring feature of any system that grants sole rights to one person or company. In the modern patent system, a patent expires 20 years after it is granted, so any monopolisation can only be relatively short term.

From Georgian times, the document granting a patent required the inclusion of a description of the invention and the way it worked. The first recognisably 'modern' patent dates back to 1711, granted to one John Nasmith, who had an idea for preparing and fermenting the wash from sugar and molasses.

Outside the UK, patent systems that were very similar were developed in other European countries and in the United States of America (which was especially keen after the 1789 War of Independence to remove any royal connection with the patent process). However, until recently one important difference remained between the USA and the rest of the world. The US patent system stipulated that the 'first to invent' wins the race for patent protection, rather than the 'first to file' principle adopted virtually everywhere else in the world, but in 2013 America joined the rest of the world in switching to the 'first to file' system.

Product invention and innovation is taken for granted by many as something that 'just happens', perhaps as a natural part of the design process. It is also often assumed that 'invention' is the prerogative of the scientist rather than the engineer or designer. However, a new discovery must be developed into a working machine or device capable of manufacture before the invention can be formally patented. A new theory or scientific observation may lead to an invention, but it is not sufficient in itself for the award of a patent.

Invention is not restricted to machines or devices, but also includes new materials, compounds (such as drugs), and processes. In this section we will concentrate on simple mechanical devices. It may be surprising, but it is true that simple devices are still being invented to solve fairly mundane problems, such as hollow beams to support brickwork or new ways of storing and transporting rubbish. The same inventive principles underlie simple devices as the much more complex machines that often attract public attention, and which tend to obscure the basic simplicity of the inventive process.

Invention is closely linked to the design process. Invention is often the starting point in generating a successful design. Patenting is just one stage in the process: a patent is not a guarantee of making a successful product; you will see that neither is it necessarily a guarantee of having made a genuine invention.