Joseph Bazalgette was a civil engineer. In 1852 he was appointed assistant commissioner to the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. Cholera had struck the capital and ‘The Great Stink’ almost brought Parliament and the city itself to a standstill. Bazalgette’s solution, a network of gravity-fed sewers and steam pumping stations, is recognised as one of the triumphs of modern civil engineering. It established Bazalgette as an invisible architect – designing systems beneath the surface that enabled the fancy stuff to carry on above ground.
Around the same time, another engineer and inventor, Bennet Woodcroft, was creating something equally as spectacular ‘underground’ – the UK’s first patent system. However, Woodcroft’s creation is nowhere near as recognised or remembered as widely as Bazalgette’s, making him one of Victorian Britain’s intangible engineers.
Bennet Woodcroft died on the 7 February 1879. It is likely that he would have wanted to have been remembered as an engineer. He was, after all, Professor of Machinery at University College, London. Failing that, an inventor would seem to be the obvious default position. The most prominent of Woodcroft’s inventions was the variable pitch propeller, which he patented in 1832 and was used in Brunel’s’ SS Great Britain.
But Woodcroft has been forgotten. Frequent travellers from London to the Intellectual Property Office in Newport will know that Isambard Kingdom Brunel welcomes passengers on to the Great Western Railway. The only effigy of Woodcroft is in the leafy seclusion of London’s Staple Inn, where he appears under a window, looking disconcertingly unreal.
The Patent Office
In the same year Bazalgette took up his position in the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, the Patent Office opened. Bennet Woodcroft, as ‘Superintendent of Specifications’, began a quarter of century’s work, creating the UK patent system. He was described by a Select Committee (who were looking into the mess that characterised the patents system at the time), as the only person with a complete list of patents in the country. Just like the river Thames, the realm of intellectual property was in desperate need of some pipework.
Woodcroft was a visionary administrator who transformed the organisation of a highly technical field, where specialist factions could not agree on the best way forward. He was a master of information dissemination. Woodcroft turned intellectual property into a system that placed technology, information, objectivity and transparency in the hands of those who most need it - the people.
Perhaps Woodcroft’s roots in Lancashire gave him an instinctive understanding that libraries and journals carrying patent specifications should be spread throughout the UK. The abridged books of patents produced by The Patent Office and arranged by subject matter, were known as ‘Bennet Woodcroft’ volumes.
But Woodcroft’s brilliance wasn’t confined to the realm of administration. As Assistant to the Commissioner of Patents, with support from Prince Albert, he created The Patent Office Library and The Patent Office Museum. These two extraordinary institutions transformed the Patent Office from a necessary institution into an inspirational one. The Library, which developed from Woodcroft’s own patent indexes from 1617–1852, grew into what was reputed to be one of the best technical libraries in the country before it became part of the British Library.
The Patent Office Museum was a magical place, designed to inspire students, the curious, the young and the old. Once again, Bennet provided the means to set it up. His own collection of models formed the basis of the museum, but his imagination knew no boundaries. The museum grew to include real inventions, not facsimiles. These included Puffing Billie, the world’s oldest surviving railway steam engine and Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’. In 1857 the museum, which was free to enter on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, attracted around 1500 people a week and, in 1884 became a formative part of the of present day Science Museum.
Bennet died in 1879. For him, invention, creativity and the creation of the new was not an activity reserved for a privileged class or a particular region. Nor was it a form of activity like any other. Bennet’s genius lay in his ability to transform an idea about the structure of collective creativity into a system and an icon, The Patent Office.