Spirit of Invention - A design exhibition at The National Archives

Exhibition / Installation

Partner Programme

16 — 17, 19 — 24 Sept 2023

Craft, Graphic Design & Visual Communications, Industrial & Product Design, Multi-Disciplinary Design, Fashion & Textiles, Materials

The National Archives

Bessant Drive





This fun, free design exhibition at The National Archives is open to all ages and will inspire you to discover your inner inventor. Step into a world of creativity from past to present – see original Victorian designs that capture the glorious imagination of Victorian Britain, alongside designs from modern makers.

Spirit of Invention is inspired by some of the thousands of creative designs registered with the Board of Trade from 1839 onwards and housed at The National Archives. The exhibition celebrates innovation past and present, showcasing cutting-edge contemporary technology along with eye-catching inventions from the Victorian era. Highlights include a state-of-the-art necklace that changes colour to signal poor air quality, a portable washing machine that uses recycled shower water and a type of fabric engineered to expand as children grow. They feature alongside a host of ingenious ideas dreamed up during the 19th and 20th centuries – among them an aerial flying machine, an early attempt at a short-range telephone and a ventilating top hat. The exhibition examines what drives people to innovate, what makes an inventor and how failure, hard work and tenacity underpin success. In 1839, the Designs Registration Act introduced copyright protection for all ‘ornamental’ designs in the UK. Such protection had previously been in place only for some textiles. The Act prompted thousands of people to register their designs for wallpapers, metalwork, ceramics and glass. It also sparked the registration of countless creative inventions by people from all walks of life. Many were aimed at harnessing evolving technology in an era of rapid social change. The National Archives holds copies of these designs in the form of drawings, paintings, photographs and product samples, sent to the Designs Registry, part of the Board of Trade, to be registered for copyright protection between 1839 and 1991.