Thursday, May 11, 2017

Oh, patents ! Murano Glass

Copyright © Françoise Herrmann

The EPO awards ceremony will take place this year in Venice, Italy, located less than one nautical mile from the small archipelago of Murano, known for its 800-year-old glass manufacturing activity! 800 years… !

Indeed, it was in 1291 that all the Venetian glassmakers were ordered out of Venice to the small archipelago of Murano. The reasons invoked were the hazards that the furnaces used for glassblowing posed to all the wooden structures of Venice, which was also overpopulated at the time.

Until their secrets were stolen a couple centuries later, the Murano (Venetian) artisan glassmakers were the inventors and custodians of several glassmaking processes. Most importantly, the Murano glass artisans knew how to make mirrors, and they invented decorative processes involving the use of colored glass rods, such as filigrana (glass threaded with colored glass, where the color rods are stretched and fused) and millefiori (multicolored glass with “flower” designs where the color rods are cross-sectioned). Other glass processes originating in Murano included the invention of crystal (clear glass), lattimo (opaque “milk” glass), smalto (glass mosaic) and glass gemstones such as goldstone or aventurine (with a host of additional folkloric names such as monkstone, monk’s gold, stellaria and sangesetareh…)

Nowadays, the small archipelago of Murano (also called the Glass Island of Venice, even though Murano consists of 7 small islands connected by bridges) is still home to both artisan glassmakers and commercial production of glass. The oldest glassmaking company (and family), Barovier & Toso® founded in 1295, is still operating to date...with a website too! It is one of the five oldest companies in the world.

Considering that the Parte Venezia, decreed by the Republic of Venice as early as 1474, is believed to be the very first patent statute, the glassmakers of Venice (Murano) were probably among the first inventors to ever receive patent protection! In any event, the secrets of the Glassmakers’ Guilds were initially well guarded with 1295 legislation even preventing the artisans from traveling outside of the Republic of Venice, in exchange for various privileges granted to the nobility.

In a less radical mode, the 1474 Venetian patent statute required all inventors to file their inventions, and in exchange of this disclosure, granted them exclusive rights to use their inventions for a time-bound period of up to 10 years. Indeed, according to some researchers (e.g.; Feirreira Nascimiento, 2016), who have investigated early patents in Europe (France, England and Germany) and in the US, it even appears that the spirit of “recorded” innovation is strongly linked to the development of the glass industry.

Below, a copy of the 1474 Parte Venezia, containing, in a nutshell, the most essential tenets of the patenting system, as it exists to date. (A Cambridge University translation is hyperlinked in the Reference section).

File:Venetian Patent Statute 1474.png
In regards the 2017 EPO Inventor Awards…my conjecture is that the 2017 trophy will be made of Murano glass. The European inventor trophy design is a “Sail” that is crafted each year from different local materials.  

Of course, I might be zapped… and completely wrong.

Barovier & Toso®
Barovier & Toso® Museum
Feirreira Nascimiento, M. L.  (2016) The first patents and the rise of glass technology
Recent innovations in Chemical Engineering, 9, 1-11.
Rasmussen, S. C. (2008) Advances in 13th century glassmaking and their effect on chemical progress. Bull. Hist. Chem. 33(1), pp. 28-34.

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