The Secret Patents Act of 1859
On 21 March 1859 Sir Fitzroy Kelly ( 1796-1880), Attorney- General in the Earl of Derby's second Tory administration, introduced the Patents for Inventions (Munitions of War) Bill to the House of Commons ( H3, 153 at 482). The bill, he explained, was 'intended to accomplish a very important object', in that 'it was thought that inventions respecting munitions of war, or others of a character which it was for the public interest to conceal, should be vested in the Crown'. He went on to describe the procedures that were proposed for 'sealing up' and 'keeping secret' the specifications of these patents, and concluded that 'to such a proposal there could . . . be no objections because, in ancient times it was the prerogative of the Crown to secure to itself an exclusive right to all inventions of a military character. The Bill was therefore only in furtherance of the ancient common law.' Parliament clearly accepted this. The bill received royal assent in less than three weeks, on 8 April 1859. There was no discussion, no amendment, and no debate, thus giving today's reader no clue as to the origin of the bill or the reason for such haste. Perhaps the British government had either just lost a good secret or had just got hold of one. It is interesting to enquire what the secret might have been.
The Mechanics' Magazine was incensed about the proposed bill. Writing one week before it received royal assent, the editor spoke for ' England' as follows: 'We are beyond all question both the richest and the ablest people on the face of the earth, and no devices of secrecy are needed in order to keep us in our proper position' ( 1 April 1859, p. 213).
But again this was the propaganda of the Whigs and free traders saying, 'Away with regulation', while at the same time, as we saw in Section 2.3, the Mechanics' Magazine editor, the propagandist Robertson, was in the process of setting himself up as a patent agent. Similarly, Sir Fitzroy Kelly's appeal to 'ancient common