HC Deb 25 April 1839 vol 47 cc512-22
Mr. Mackinnon,

in bringing forward the motion on this subject, of which he had given notice, said he regretted that the case of Messrs. Fourdrinier had not fallen into hands more competent to do justice to it than he could pretend to be. The task, however, had been forced on him. In 1836, a committee was appointed to investigate the claims of Messrs. Fourdrinier, and at the instance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was named on and appointed chairman of that committee. Until then he had no knowledge whatever of the claimants. When he presented the report of the committee to the House, it was objected to by the Speaker, because the word "compensation" was used in it, and he called attention to this point only because a report was read in 1832, in which not only the word "compensation," but the expression "pecuniary compensation" was to be found. He mentioned this to show, that if the report of 1836 was objectionable, it was no fault of his; that it was so, because there had been a precedent previously established for pursuing such a course. It might be said, that Messrs. Fourdrinier were not the inventors of this plan; but although they were not the inventors, yet it had been brought by them to such a degree of perfection., as to enable the country to benefit by the discovery. The merits of an invention, it was admitted, did not belong so much to the individual by whom the discovery was originally made, as to the party by whom it was applied to the advantage of the community. The House was probably aware, that previously to the discovery, paper was made by the hand, and the process was both tedious and expensive. The machinery invented by Messrs. Fourdrinier was of a very complicated nature; but by it paper could be made, without manual intervention, of any length, to the extent of several thousand yards in one continuous piece. It might be asked, how had they lost the benefit of this patent? It appeared that they had expended a great portion of capital in bringing the invention to perfection. Many attempts were made to pirate it, and thus involved them in litigation. An action was brought by the Messrs. Fourdrinier, and they obtained a verdict, but, on an application to the Court of King's Bench, the Chief Justice granted a new trial, merely because the word "machine" instead of "machines" was inserted in the patent. Their funds were by that time exhausted, having expended upwards of 40,000l. in the invention, and they were unable to defend their rights any longer. The boon to the public, by the invention, had been immense. Every trade, and every department of science, and the arts, had been benefitted by it. In the potteries, it had been shown that, but for the invention of Messrs. Fourdrinier, it would have been impossible to have brought china to such perfection ss it had been. Mr. Brunel, the eminent engineer, considered the invention one of the most splendid of the present age, and Mr. Lawson, of the Times newspaper, had given similar testimony. The machinery of Messrs. Fourdrinier was such, that all risk and labour was avoided by it. In 1800 there were no machines in existence, and the duty on paper then received, amounted to only 193,533l. In 1821, the amount of duty had risen to 572,867l., and in 1835 it was 833,832l., He did not mean for a moment to say, that had machinery not been invented, the duty would not have increased progressively, but he would say that, without the aid of the machines of Messrs. Fourdrinier, it would have been perfectly impossible that it could have risen in the extraordinary manner that it had. From 1800 to 1835, the absolute gain to the community amounted to 6,000,000l., and the increase in the revenue was not less than 500,000l. a year. He hoped that he would not be opposed on this occasion by her Majesty's Government. They could not refuse to remunerate Messrs. Fourdrinier, otherwise they must refuse to remunerate any inventor in future, which would be a great detriment to the public generally, and upon the same principle, the country had been injured to the amount which had been paid to former inventors. He did not wish to occupy the time further upon the subject, and should therefore conclude by moving, that the report on the re-committal report of the Committee on the claims of Messrs. Fourdrinier be taken into consideration.

Mr. Hume

said, he apprehended, that the hon. Gentleman should either move an address to the Crown, or that the House should go into a Committee of the whole House on the subject of his motion. It was quite clear, that the House could come to no resolution on the present motion.

The Speaker

said, that there were three stages to be gone through before the hon. Gentleman could arrive at the object which he had in view; and the first step to be taken was to refer the question to a Committee of the whole House, and to have their report on a resolution for granting the money intended to be given as compensation.

The Chancellor

of the Exchequer said, he had certainly understood from those who had waited upon him on the subject, that no money vote was to be asked for on the present occasion. He fully concurred in the suggestion of the hon. Member for Kilkenny.

Mr. Mackinnon

said, that he would adopt the suggestion which had been thrown out. The hon. Gentleman then moved, that the House should resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House on the claims of Messrs. Fourdrinier.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he was not there to deny in any shape the merits of the invention of Messrs. Fourdrinier, or that it had been of great benefit to the public at large, and also to the revenue of the country, but it by no means followed that they were entitled to pecuniary compensation from that House. There was no subject upon which the House was bound to exercise greater discretion than in money grants. The mere question of the ingenuity of an invention would not give the party a claim upon the bounty of that House, and he did not think the present case formed any exception to the general rule upon that subject. He was one of those who thought it right that rewards should be given to merit, but it behoved the House to exercise the power they had to give those rewards with caution, otherwise they would be offering a premium to applications for pecuniary grants. He was willing to consent to the present motion, and after the opinion of the House had been expressed upon the subject, he would state what course her Majesty's Ministers intended to pursue.

Lord F. Egerton

thought, that the Government generally had drawn the line of reward for merit with great severity. He was of opinion, that the most liberal consideration of the House ought to be directed to this application. The invention was one of great importance, and in the highest degree deserving of public support.

Mr. M. Philips

said, that there was scarcely any invention which had been productive of greater advantage than that of the Messrs. Fourdrinier. There was no one more opposed than he was to granting public money from any regard to individuals; but this case was of so peculiar a nature, that he thought there was a very strong claim upon them for compensation. He had been a Member of the committee, and in his opinion a stronger case was never made than that of the Messrs. Fourdrinier, whose invention might truly be termed a magnificent one—an invention scarcely inferior in importance than calico printing. Such results as had followed that invention would not have been otherwise produced, and feeling strongly the claims which those gentlemen had, he hoped, that compensation would be granted to them. Every Gentleman acquainted with the merits of the case, and with mechanical agencies, was an advocate for the compensation of the originators of so important and valuable an invention. He had presented petitions from several talented individuals of that description in support of this claim, and he should not be doing justice to them if he did not give his opinion as entirely favourable to the grant of compensation.

Mr. Baines

said, that every individual, with one exception, to whom the Messrs. Fourdrinier had been indebted, was paid 20s. in the pound. It was a most important invention, and one from which the public every day derived advantage, inasmuch as it had considerably reduced the price of paper. If it had not been for that invention, a great deal of the benefit which had been derived from the extension of cheap information would have been lost to the public. There could be no stronger claim than that of the Messrs. Fourdrinier, whose fortunes had been overwhelmed by the exertions they had made to bring that invention to perfection, and push it forward into practical operation.

Mr. Hume

said, that it was true every inventor thought that his own discovery was of the first importance to himself and the nation, and perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be right in opposing such a claim as at first sight that appeared to be. But it was, however, a case which possessed peculiarly strong claims upon their sympathy. Sir William Congreve had got 1,200l. a-year for the invention of rockets; and with that fact before them he thought that they might feel themselves justified in compensating the author of an invention certainly not less useful to the public. With respect to the details upon which the claim was founded, he should say that he never heard a case so well supported by the evidence as that had been. Every individual who had any experience with respect to the consumption of paper and the expenditure attendant upon it, had borne testimony to the vast importance and advantage of that invention. He thought that her Majesty's Government ought to take the case into consideration, particularly as from the time of life at which the Messrs. Fourdrinier had arrived, it was not probable they would be long a burthen upon the public.

Sir R. Peel:

—Sir, I regret that her Majesty's Government have not pursued another course with respect to the claim which is now before us. The constitution has wisely given to the Government the sole power of deciding in such cases as to whether any claim of this description shall be admitted or not; and, no matter how the House of Commons may decide, the veto lies with them. If, in every case where any invention was made, calculated to diminish human pain or labour, or to advance science, the claims of those who were the inventors should be brought under discussion, and recompense granted, the Government would establish precedents that might ultimately be found productive of great difficulty; but, on the other band, if this case be found to be one which, from its peculiar merits, is not calculated to produce the evils which might result from a bad precedent—if it should appear that it is an extraordinary exemption of that description—the Government have the power to grant the compensation claimed. I think, however, that bringing this case before the House for discussion, at a period when her Majesty's Government have not made up their minds as to whether compensation should be granted or not, is calculated rather to embarrass them in its further consideration, and raise hopes in the minds of the claimants which may not ultimately be fulfilled. In such a discussion, where there is a claim before the House upon the part of a person who may be possessed of great ingenuity, and who may also be suffering from the pressure of poverty, when it is no party question, the natural sympathies of the House will be found in favour of the claim, and the majority will be found to vote for compensation. Persons are naturally inclined to lend support to one who is represented as suffering disasters consequent upon his exertions to bring forward an ingenious invention, and it is on that account that the constitution has given to the Government the decision of those claims for compensation. Public sympathy will in general be found to support such claims and I venture to state that I could bring forward one hundred similar cases where the sympathies of the majority in this House would be entirely in favour of the claimants for compensation. Persons are naturally literal towards those possessed of ingenuity. The public purse is very deep; but, although it can afford to grant rewards for inventions or discoveries which have a tendency to benefit the public, that does not supply a sufficient reason why we should establish the precedent of leading inventors to hope for reward from any other source than the success of their inventions. I object to this discussion before the minds of her Majesty's Government are made up with respect to the admission or rejection of the application; for if the House should decide in favour of compensation, it is clear that the Government will scarcely have a fair discretion left to them. If they do not concur with the decision of the House, then it is equally clear that the discussion is entirely thrown away. If they were acquainted with the merits of the case, why did they not come to some decision upon it, instead of permitting it to be discussed in this House with such imperfect information as must necessarily exist, where some hon. Members merely recollect the circumstances and others are unacquainted with it? Why did they not avail themselves of the assistance which they could easily command in order to enable them to come to a decision upon it, instead of allowing it to be discussed here; for it is manifest that the difficulties of the case will be greatly increased, so far as the Government are concerned, if they should feel it necessary to act in opposition to the determination which the House of Commons may come to. It appears that these gentlemen were engaged in a profitable trade in 1800 and 1801; in 1800 their profits amounted to 14,000l., in 1801 to 14,215l., but in 1802 they only amounted to 4,000l., in consequence of the withdrawal of capital from their business for the purpose of pushing forward an invention. I regret that persons engaged in so profitable a business did not give better consideration to the subject before they withdrew their capital from it for the purpose of carrying out that invention. The other cause of loss which has been assigned is some technical objection which was made before the Court of Queen's Bench. I regret that this loss should have taken place, but if these grounds be adduced as the reason for our granting compensation, I must say that a thousand cases equally strong might be brought before us by inventors. We cannot establish such a precedent, no matter how great the skill or ingenuity displayed, of making the public the paymasters for those inventions, notwithstanding the public may receive benefit from them. There are hundreds of cases which might be adduced where great advantage has been conferred upon the public without a corresponding benefit to the inventors; for instance, surgeons who have not succeeded in business, although they might have made discoveries which vastly diminished the amount of human suffering. I should regret as much as any one, that such deserving individuals should not receive a benefit in some degree proportioned to that which they might have conferred upon the public, but I could not permit my sympathy with individual loss to overbear the public interest. It would be better, if the Government wished to grant those gentlemen some reward, that they appointed them to offices in the Excise, or some similar office, than that they should establish such a precedent. I do not blame the Government for not having done this; but I merely say that it would be a better mode of granting them a reward for this invention, or a compensation for their loss. There have been thousands of cases in the navy and various other departments, where, as I before remarked, great public benefits have been conferred without a corresponding advantage to the inventor; and we could not grant compensation in this case, without opening the way to those other individuals who were not successful in their inventions. There are numerous inventions made by artisans in a low situation to which these observations would equally apply, and by voting compensation in the case now before us we shall merely establish a precedent for those applications. It is extremely painful to be obliged to oppose a claim with which we cannot but have sympathy, but in such cases our better feelings are often opposed by our sense of public duty; and I must again say, that there are numerous other cases, perhaps not so strong as this, to which, by granting the compensation now applied for, we should suffer our sympathy with individual loss to overbear the public interest. The same may be said of inventions connected with the navy, where the inventors have, from some cause or other, not received the rewards of their ingenuity.

Sir Robert Inglis,

agreeing with his right hon. Friend who had just sat down, as to the easiness of being liberal at the public expense, believed that there was no danger of any improper precedent being established by granting compensation in the present case. Only one similar case had occurred within the last thirty years, and if there really existed the danger imagined by his right hon. Friend, it was extraordinary such a period should have elapsed without any such application. He believed that these gentlemen had a claim on the justice of the House for compensation, as they had contributed largely to the increase of the public revenue at a great loss to themselves, and he could not concur in the course taken by his right hon. Friend. He did not think his right hon. Friend would have objected to the vote if the Government themselves had proposed it. He understood his right hon. Friend to object to the grant, because it was one of those cases which might be brought forward hereafter to compel the Government to yield a similar grant. If that were so, he (Sir R. Inglis) hoped his right hon. Friend would not suffer this case to be prejudiced merely because her Majesty's Ministers had not taken the precise mode of bringing the case before the House which they ought to have taken. He hoped that such compensation would be given to the Messrs. Fourdrinier as their invention deserved.

Mr. Godson

said, that in the year 1800 the Messrs. Fourdrinier were worth £.14,000 a-year. They had applied a portion of their capital for the purpose of introducing this machinery and making improvements. Owing to this they found they were opposed by all the paper manufacturers in the kingdom; and it was not one law suit, it was nearly one hundred which they were obliged to bring for the purpose of enforcing their rights. The House would see that no individual, however rich, could stand a combination such as this. In 1807 they found that by courts of law to protect their rights and other proceedings they were £.60,000 out of pocket. In 1807 they became bankrupts, and the assignees determined to go on with the actions; they recovered a verdict; and on a motion for a new trial, the Lord Chief Justice said, that as the patent was for making paper from 30 to 40 feet long, and from 3 to 12 feet wide, the machine which was produced in Court could not effect that; so that they were ruined, not from a defect in their patent, but from a want of mechanical knowledge in the Chief Justice, for had they had property sufficient to have gone to a new trial, they would have proved that a combination of those machines was capable of making paper in the manner described. He thought that the better way to consider this case was, to suppose that there was no patent at all, and to suppose that an individual had introduced an invention by which the Government in the consumption of paper in the Stationery-office saved £.15,000 a-year. The ingenuity of the invention was so great that felt for the preservation of ships' bottoms might be made by it. Teaboards and many other articles might also be made by the same machinery. Then, what was the principle on which they were asked to reward this ingenuity? Putting the question of the patent out of consideration, they had an invention by which it was admitted that they were enabled to have paper of any size, and by which they obtained also many other advantages. If the House at any other time were right in granting a reward, they would be right in granting one in this instance; but if they wished to establish a precedent that they were never to grant another reward, then he could understand their position.

Mr. Pryme,

as a member of the committee, begged to offer his testimony to the extraordinary merits of the invention. He hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be induced to reward it.

Mr. H. G. Knight

said, one important thing to consider was, that the unfortunate inventor had in this case been ruined by protecting the invention. He hoped that on this occasion the House would attend to the application.

Mr. D. Maclean

said, he had been on the committee, and had heard sufficient to be convinced that this would be a most worthy exception to the general rule, and a very proper occasion on which to make a grant. He would put it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether it were not a claim to be taken into consideration. He did think, that if there ever were a case on which to set up a precedent of justice, this was a case. He hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer would allow them to go into committee, after the general expression they had heard in favour of the grant.

The Chancellor

of the Exchequer hoped the hon. Member would withdraw the motion. He fully concurred in the general principle laid down by the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir R. Peel). He thought this was a very peculiar case, bearing on the whole manufacturing industry of the country in various branches of manufacture; and he thought it was not too much to ask, on the part of the Government, before they finally made up their minds, that they should hear evidence on both sides, and other evidence besides ex parte evidence. He was anxious that they should have the opportunity of hearing both sides.

Mr. Mackinnon,

in compliance with the feeling of the House would withdraw the motion, being perfectly satisfied with the assurance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that he would take the case into consideration.

Motion withdrawn.