Inventions and Official Secrecy: A History of Secret Patents in the United Kingdom

By T. O'Dell H. | Go to book overview
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4
Towards an Official Secrets Act

4.1 Public Records

The last chapter has taken us as far as 1870 in the history of secret patents, when Parliament was clearly preparing for a change in the patent system. This occurred in 1883, and will be dealt with in this chapter, which will then consider a closely related Act, the Official Secrets Act of 1889. The Public Record Office holds papers concerning the preparation of both Acts, and some of the papers concern discussions and decisions that took place back in the 1870s. This is in great contrast to the situation surrounding the Acts of 1852 and 1859, which were discussed in Chapters 2 and 3: no records survive that might tell us about the confidential discussions that preceded the preparation of these bills.

The Public Record Office was established by Act of Parliament in 1838, so it is not surprising that records of administrative detail are sparse for the earlier years of the nineteenth century. It should also be noted that records were kept secret for fifty years until fairly recently, when the time-delay was reduced to thirty years. Many files may be retained by a department, however, and an interesting example of this concerns the Admiralty papers dealing with a visit of the Soviet warship Sverdlov to Spithead in 1953 (PRO: ADM1/27600). Sensitive files may also be released to the PRO and yet remain closed for extended periods. An example is ADM1/27528, which contains papers concerning 'conscientious objectors in the Services: future arrangements' and cannot be seen until the year 2042, when the papers will all be more than seventyfive years old.

Thus records concerning an Act of the 1880s could not be seen by the public before the 1930s. These papers, many of which were confidential at the time, give us a much broader picture of the history of secret patents. Let us begin with a bundle of papers (PRO: WO32/6205) made available to the public in 1928, which deals with the possibility of patent law reform in the years before 1877.

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