Owning and Disowning Invention

Owning and Disowning Invention: Intellectual Property, Authority and Identity in British Science and Technology, 1880-1920

This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and involved a collaboration between the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science, Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds and the Department of Historical Studies, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.

Aims and Themes

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 interrelated themes that the project addressed were:

By studying intellectual property issues in three areas of innovative techno-science in the period 1880-1920 viz. electrical engineering, aviation and plant breeding, the project addressed contemporary concerns about secrecy in public research, the openness of knowledge production in corporate and public institutions, and problems relevant to the collective character of present day research and invention.

Research Team

Project Directors

Professor Graeme Gooday, University of Leeds

Professor Gregory Radick, University of Leeds

Professor Christine MacLeod, University of Bristol

Research Fellow

Dr Stathis Arapostathis, University of Leeds

PhD Students

Mr Berris Charnley, University of Leeds

Mr Jon Hopwood-Lewis, University of Bristol

Research Activities

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.

Impact Activities

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

Contact Details

All enquiries regarding the project should be addressed in the first instance to:
Mr. Berris Charnley
Centre for History and Philosophy of Science
Department of Philosophy
University of Leeds
Leeds, LS2 9JT
E-Mail: Berris.Charnley@gmail.com