Rules, discretion and industrialisation
: The patent system of the Netherlands, 1817-1869

  • Homer Wagenaar

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis investigates the patent system introduced in 1817 by the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, and its fate in its successor states of Belgium and the Netherlands from 1830. This patent system differed strongly from present-day patent systems because it gave patent authorities a high degree of discretion on whether and under what conditions to grant a patent. As such, this context can provide lessons for patent reform today. But besides the potential for historical analogues, this context is also important historically: while an industrialising Belgium reformed its patent system in 1854, the Netherlands, the late industrialiser, abolished theirs in 1869.

To investigate these questions, the thesis methodologically steps away from a purely formal understanding of patent laws. It integrates the administrative implementation of formal rules, and so uncovers the creative force administrative discretion can be. It combines in-depth archival research with a newly constructed patent database. The new database integrates the methodological perspective by including the non-granted patents and the administrative process that led to patent grants or their refusal. This is a rare if not unique feature in quantitative historical patent research.

With this methodology, I find that the highly discretionary patent system developed fairly consistent practices, treating applicants professionally and equitably, whether foreigners or domestic residents. In Belgium, this practice was continued after independence in 1830 and made more transparent and accessible, until the law was undermined by its own success. By contrast, in the Netherlands the patent system withered away in the face of a lack of interest and a hostile environment from politicians, judges and industrialists. I argue that there is a mutually reinforcing dynamic between the Industrial Revolution and the patent system, and that the Dutch abolition of its patent system should therefore be seen as an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary event.
Date of AwardJul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsMarie Sklodowska Curie COFUND, Northern Ireland Department for the Economy & Utrecht Network
SupervisorChris Colvin (Supervisor), Christopher Coyle (Supervisor) & Norma Dawson (Supervisor)


  • Patents
  • industrialisation
  • industrialization
  • rules
  • discretion
  • implementation
  • innovation
  • economic history
  • law and economics
  • The United Kingdom of the Netherlands
  • Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • nineteenth century
  • Intellectual Property
  • Industrial Revolution

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