I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


17 October 2014

Inventions that didn't change the world: book review

Inventions that didn't change the world, by Julie Halls, has just been published by Thames & Hudson in association with Britain's National Archives.

It explains the story, with 240 colour illustrations, of Britain's Useful Designs, which were available from 1843 to the early 1880s, with over 6000 registrations. At a cost of £10 it effectively provided, for some, an alternative to the very expensive and cumbersome patent system, although in theory it was for a new shape or configuration rather than for a new concept. Protection though was limited to 3 years unlike patents' 14 years. Besides the Useful Designs, there were the much more numerous Ornamental Designs.

There is a preliminary chapter, explaining the context, but the large bulk of the book consists of the illustrations in seven themed sections. They have clearly been picked for their visual impact, and some are distinctly odd -- anti-garotting devices, fan riding whips, and so on, besides the expected cornucopia of Victorian life. It is fascinating to leaf through the pages, where very often a detailed handwritten explanation of how the design worked (by the designer) appears below the illustration. Anyone interested in design generally, or social history, will enjoy the book.

There is a very detailed index, and a list of the displayed designs with its reference at the National Archives and the name and description of the designer (address and sometimes an occupation).

I would have liked to have seen some investigation into the actual designers by using census and other data, and regret the absence of any mention (as far as I can tell) to women as designers. My own research suggests that there were at least 55 women who took out these designs, with 17 of those for clothing, hats or shoes. The remainder covered quite a variety, including carriages.

I would also have liked to have seen a mention of Alexis Soyer, a celebrated chef in his day, who came up with six designs, as listed here. That came from the Discovery catalogue where these Useful Designs can be searched by entering BT45 as the "reference" and then entering words (such as title words, surname, address, occupation) in the boxes above. Images, though, are not available. Two Crimean stoves and one Crimean cloak can be found, for example.

These are minor quibbles, and I recommend the book as an excellent browse. There are illustrations, and a short video, at a Thames & Hudson page, and more images at the Guardian's book review.

Julie Halls will be giving a talk at 2 pm on the 28 October about her book at the National Archives.

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