Obtaining the patents
The processs of application and grant for patents in the eighteenth century is well covered by Neil Davenport in The United Kingdom Patent Sytem: A Brief History.
From the initial petition to the sealing of the King's "letters patent" there were nine stages, taking on average 6-8 weeks.
The dates of sealing of Cort's three patents are:
1st English patent 7 Jan 1783
Scottish patent 6 Feb 1784
2nd English patent 13 Feb 1784
A further stage, enrolment, followed sealing. The dates for Cort's enrolment are:
1st English patent 16 May 1783
Scottish patent 5 May 1784
2nd English patent 12 Jun 1784
The applicant needed to ensure he was represented at each stage. Hence the need for an agent.
No record has been found of Cort's agent in London, but it was probably James Watson, who was married to a cousin of his wife.
Cort's agent in Edinburgh is identified in Weale (one of the main sources) as John Wauchope, Writer to the Signet. It is likely that Wauchope's services were procured by Watson, who had graduated Doctor of Laws at Edinburgh University in 1778.
To get his patent enrolled, the applicant needed to provide a written specification of his process, starting with the standard wording...
To all people to whom these presents shall come I Henry Cort the Grantee in the letters patent herein after in part recited.…
How patent specification begins.
This shows that the applicant was expected to attend in person. He might be asked questions about his process by the enrolling panel. There is further evidence that Cort was in Edinburgh in May 1784.
Coverage of Cort’s patents
So what did these patents cover?
This excerpt from the specification in Cort's first English patent describes the essence of the "rolling" process.
In case thick bars, or squares, or round bolts are intended to be welded through the rollers, grooves of the shape and dimensions required for any of these uses are made in the under roller and collars in the upper roller to work exactly within such grooves, the surface of such collars being either plane for squares and flats, or concave for bolts and the like, as the case may require.
From specification for rolling process.
But the specification also covers a host of processes for conversion of old forged artefacts into other items.
No hint of puddling, however. This is covered by the second English patent.
The full text of both English patents is given in Mott/Singer, Henry Cort: The Great Finer. The book, however, ignores the Scottish patent, which covers the full puddling process, rolling included, but omits other techniques described in the first English patent.
It looks as though Cort, having encountered the hassle and expense of applying for two separate patents in England, wanted to avoid repeating the experience in Scotland.
Fate of Cort’s patents
It has been generally accepted that all Cort's patents were impounded by the Navy to cover part of the debt he was held to owe the Crown.
The most compelling evidence is the statement given to a Naval Enquiry in 1804 by Joseph White, the lawyer charged with realising the impounded assets, that he was unable to find a purchaser.
There were some patents respecting the making of iron in a particular way for the purchase of which many offers had been made, but I never could get any person finally to agree as a purchase.
Testimony of Joseph White
Three patents seem to be implied. We may note that White did not use the usual contemporary, and somewhat ambiguous, term "letters patent".
There couldn't have been more than three. Could there have been fewer?
There must be doubt whether the Navy obtained all these patents at the same time. Two records are pertinent.
First, the inventory for the contents of Adam Jellicoe's house, which were also impounded, included letters patent dated 17 January 1783, and assigned by Henry Cort to Adam Jellicoe on 24 August the same year. These would cover only the earliest patent.
Second, a reference in the letter Adam Jellicoe wrote to the Treasurer of the Navy, Henry Dundas, in July 1788, asking for more time to return the money he had misappropriated.
I shall take the earliest opportunity of paying in all my Balance, for which there appears to be no immediate demand; but in case you think a security necessary for the responsibility of the Situation which I have the honour to hold under you, I beg leave to offer the inclosed, amounting to a larger sum than I can at any time hope to have in my hands unemployed.
Letter of Adam Jellicoe to Henry Dundas, 10 July 1788.
Sundry bonds and assignments of Mr. Cort’s patents were the securities offered, which were all included in the property found under the Extent.
Note added to explain “the inclosed”, according to Report of Select Committee into Tenth Report of Commission of Naval Enquiry, May 1805.
Did Dundas accept Jellicoe’s offer? Not according to the Naval Enquiry.
It they are right, "the inclosed" probably refers to the patent found at Adam's house the following year.
Other patents are not mentioned in any other inventory of Cort's or Jellicoe's properties, so one cannot be sure how, or indeed whether, the Navy impounded all of them, or whether they took ownership through the “bonds and assignments” offered in 1788.
What is not in dispute is that they valued the patents they held at a mere £100.
This valuation, combined with the Navy's failure to claim royalties from manufacturers for using the puddling process, is reckoned as a missed opportunity. It has even been suggested that the Navy was in league with the manufacturers.
But one must remember that Richard Crawshay and others had difficulty getting puddling to work with coke-smelted pig iron. By the time they were successful, Cort was out of the frame and the Navy had lost interest.