Patently Contestable

From Inside Technology

Patently Contestable

Electrical Technologies and Inventor Identities on Trial in Britain

By Stathis Arapostathis and Graeme Gooday

An examination of the fierce disputes that arose in Britain in the decades around 1900 concerning patents for electrical power and telecommunications.





An examination of the fierce disputes that arose in Britain in the decades around 1900 concerning patents for electrical power and telecommunications.

Late nineteenth-century Britain saw an extraordinary surge in patent disputes over the new technologies of electrical power, lighting, telephony, and radio. These battles played out in the twin tribunals of the courtroom and the press. In Patently Contestable, Stathis Arapostathis and Graeme Gooday examine how Britain's patent laws and associated cultures changed from the 1870s to the 1920s. They consider how patent rights came to be so widely disputed and how the identification of apparently solo heroic inventors was the contingent outcome of patent litigation. Furthermore, they point out potential parallels between the British experience of allegedly patentee-friendly legislation introduced in 1883 and a similar potentially empowering shift in American patent policy in 2011.

After explaining the trajectory of an invention from laboratory to Patent Office to the court and the key role of patent agents, Arapostathis and Gooday offer four case studies of patent-centered disputes in Britain. These include the mostly unsuccessful claims against the UK alliance of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison in telephony; publicly disputed patents for technologies for the generation and distribution of electric power; challenges to Marconi's patenting of wireless telegraphy as an appropriation of public knowledge; and the emergence of patent pools to control the market in incandescent light bulbs.


$42.00 X ISBN: 9780262019033 310 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 15 figures


  • This is a well-written, important work that raises many contemporary intellectual property rights issues. There is an extensive potential audience for this book, as it applies to information technologies that have become the economic infrastructure internationally and the subject of important patent disputes.

    Computing Reviews


  • Patently Contestable is a dazzling display of the power of history to speak to the most pressing concerns of our modern technological age. This book challenges the fundamental assumptions that allow corporations to monopolize socially and collectively won innovations as their 'intellectual property.'

    Colin Divall

    The University of York

  • The image of the lone inventor has long had a powerful hold on the public imagination. But who really invented the light bulb, or the telephone, or radio? As Stathis Arapostathis and Graeme Gooday show in their incisive study of controversies in the British electrical industry, the answer was rarely simple and often hotly disputed. By examining, in concrete detail, fundamental questions concerning invention, patents, and what came to be called 'intellectual property,' Arapostathis and Gooday shed light on issues whose significance reaches far beyond the history of technology.

    Bruce J. Hunt

    University of Texas

  • Arapostathis and Gooday fully deliver on their promise to unpack the contested relationships between inventors and their inventions. It may seem obvious who invented what, but this survey of the bloody battlefield of electrical technology at the beginning of the twentieth century should convince its readers otherwise. This is a book that shows how the history of technology ought to matter for contemporary policy—and that policy-makers should read with care.

    Iwan Morus

    Professor of History, Aberystwyth University


  • Winner, 2014 John Pickstone Prize, awarded by the The British Society for the History of Science