This paper surveys the American and British patent systems in the period prior to the latter’s reform in 1852 and coinciding with the period of the first industrial revolution. It has been suggested that the British system’s archaic application procedure, extortionately high fees and hostile courts were indicative of an oligarchic socio-political system that purposively sought to restrict access to patent protection, as was apparently typical across Europe. Conversely, the American system was an open and democratic one, intended to provide patent protection to as many sections of society as possible. This paper argues for a less stylized comparison. British courts were not so hostile to patents (and patentees) as has been commonly supposed. Neither was it so difficult to obtain patent protection: for all its faults, the evidence that the British patent system was designed to restrict access to its provisions is nugatory. Consequently, explanations for America’s technological catch-up and eventual supplantation of Britain and Europe as global technological leader cannot invoke ‘superior’ patent institutions as a contributory factor.