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Il Badalone; Brunnelleschi and an Early Patent

Normal service on boring enforcement related matters will resume later today, in the meantilme a little history. The initial draft stated the Badalone patent was the world’s first, this turns out to be incorrect, in a variety of ways! On a purely formal level, the first patent was granted to Francisco Petri in 1416 for the fulling of wool and was awarded in Venice.
Having been in Florence for the last months, I discovered that it was the site of what was apparently the world’s first patents: a boat design created in 1421 by the builder of the Duomo’s famous cuploa, Filippo Brunelleschi, and christened “Il Badalone”. We don’t have the detail of the design, but thee is an image by Taccola in his book De Ingenis.

Il Badalone from Taccola's De ingenis

The boat was designed for the transportation of heavy loads up the Arno, and was specifically required for the transportation of large slabs of marble from the quarries of Carrara. Transportation by land was cheaper than over land, but problems lay in the nature of the Arno which moved at unpredictable speeds and contained strange currents. From 1420 Brunnelleschi rumours circulated that Brunnelleschi was hiding something out of fear that others would profit from it unfairly, and in the following year the town’s ruling council, the Signoria, granted him a rather sweeping exclusivity over his new device, worded as follows:

“The Magnificent and Powerful Lords, Lords Magistrate and Standard Bearer of Justice,

Considering that the admirable Filippo Brunelleschi, a man of the most perspicacious intellect, industry and invention, a citizen of Florence, has invented some machine or kind of ship, by means of which he thinks he can easily, at any time, bring in any merchandise and load on the river Arno and on any other river or water, for less money than usual, and with several other benefits to merchants and others, and that he refuses to make such machine available to the public, in order that the fruit of his genius and skill may not be reaped by another without his will and consent; and that, if he enjoyed some prerogative concerning this, he would open up what he is hiding and would disclose it to all;

And desiring that this matter, so withheld and hidden without fruit, shall be brought to light to be of profit to both said Filippo and our whole country and others, and that some privilege be created for said Filippo as hereinafter described, so that he may be animated more fervently to even higher pursuits and stimulated to more subtle investigations, they deliberated on 19 June 1421;

That no person alive, wherever born and of whatever status, dignity, quality and grade, shall dare or presume, within three years next following from the day when the present provision has been approved in the Council of Florence, to commit any of the following acts on the river Arno, any other river, stagnant water, swamp, or water running or existing in the territory of Florence: to have, hold or use in any manner, be it newly invented or made in new form, a machine or ship or other instrument designed to import or ship or transport on water any merchandise or any things or goods, except such ship or machine or instrument as they may have used until now for similar operations, or to ship or transport, or to have shipped or transported, any merchandise or goods on ships, machines or instruments for water transport other than such as were familiar and usual until now, and further that any such new or newly shaped machine etc. shall be burned;

Provided however that the foregoing shall not be held to cover, and shall not apply to, any newly invented or newly shaped machine etc., designed to ship, transport or travel on water, which may be made by Filippo Brunelleschi or with his will and consent; also, that any merchandise, things or goods which may be shipped with such newly invented ships, within three years next following, shall be free from the imposition, requirement or levy of any new tax not previously imposed.”
Taken from Prager and Scaglia: Brunnelleschi: studies of his Technology and Inventions , 1970, MIT Press

Despite this grant Filippo evidently had some problems completing his project. the invention was revealed in 1424, and he did not contract with the Opera Del Duomo to employ it in transports of marble for the Cupola until 1427, when he did so at a price that would have made him a lot of money. The marble was duly collected and began it’s journey up the Arno, with Ponte a Signa as its destination. But somewhere near Empoli disaster struck, and the cargo never made it any further on Il Badalone. His acquisition of rope shortly afterwards was suspected to be for the purpose of raising the lost stone from the depths. In the end he never did deliver the stone and to continue with work on the cupola using repurposed tombstones.

The Medici’s, Brunnelleschi’s patrons, were already the most powerful family in Florence in the 1420s, although the nature of their dominance would not become clear until after Cosimo di Medici’s exile and then defeat of the Albizi’s between 1433 and 1434.

There is no documentation of further patents granted under their rule to my knowledge. the first Patent system was formally established a little later in the Venetian Republic in 1474. This initiative has been characterised by some historians as an attempt to re-inject initiative into the Republic at a time of economic decline, due to the loss of its dominance on Mediterranean trade, but I’m not in any position to judge that. Perhaps I’ll know more later, as I will attend a lecture by Luca Mola on inventions in the 15th century this afternoon. Adios.

Having spoken with Luca Mola, it seems the claim that patent were intorduced by the Venetians to reverse their economic fortunes are wide of the mark. I came across the proposition in Ryan’s ‘Knowledge Diplomacy‘, he in turn seems to have gleaned it from Bugbee’s 1967 ‘Genesis of the American Copyright and Patent System’. In fact the second half of the 15th century was a time of prosperity in Venice: the spice trade was thriving and Portugal had yet to open the new trading route around the Cape of Good hope, which would not be sailed by Vasco De Gama until 1498. As Mola is both Venetian and a historian specialised in the late middle ages, I’ll take his word for it!


March 9, 2011 - Posted by | /, history, italy, patent


  1. […] The first patent in the world was arguably granted in Florence, Italy to Filippo Brunelleschi in 1421 for a flat-keeled boat with paddle wheels for transporting heavy goods along rivers, christened “Il Badalone”.  Although vague by today’s standards, the document was enforced by intellectual property law to protect Brunelleschi’s invention for three years from unauthorised production, and thus qualifies as the world’s first patent. […]

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  2. […] first patent ever was granted to inventor Brunelleschi in 1421, and Gutenberg’s assistant negotiated a lifelong […]

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  3. […] first patent ever was granted to inventor Brunelleschi in 1421, and Gutenberg’s assistant negotiated a lifelong […]

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