Researching patents

Hale’s Tours patent diagram

Among the many remarkable research resources available online for those interested in the technical aspects of early and silent cinema, some of the most important are patent records. There are three major sites:

Google Patents

Still in Beta mode, this enables you to search across 7 million US patents, from the 1790s up to last year. The records come from the United States Patgent and Trademark Office (see below), and the information is all in the public domain. You can search for patent number, inventor, assigneee, classification or date. It helps to know something about the patent process to get the best results, and don’t search for a product name – these rarely feature in patent descriptions. Search results provide the patent number etc, plus a copy of the patent document itself – Abstract, Drawing, Description and Claims.

US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

The patent data and images on Google Patents all derive from the USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database. This is an alternative search option, better suited for professionals and research experts. As with Google, it only lists US patents.


For European patents, including British, you have to go to the Europe Patent Office’s esp@cenet service. From the main site you choose your country of interest: Britain is The search options are more or less the same as above, but care should be taken over searching by patent number, for which you need to add a country code and year.

Here are two examples to try out:

George Hale’s 1905 design for a a film show is a mocked-up railway carriage which rocked to and fro, marketed as Hale’s Tours (US patent 800100) [illustrated above]

George Albert Smith’s 1906 patent for a motion picture colour system, later to be called Kinemacolor (Patent no. 26671, or GB190626671)