Thursday, October 27, 2005

How Patents set the Industrial Revolution back by 30 Years

David K. Levine maintains an excellent website about Intellectual Monopolies and their dangers.

In particular, if you are interested in some very compelling arguments, see Boldrin and Levine's treatise Against Intellectual Monopoly. In the very first few pages, you'll learn how James Watt, considered by some to be the father of the Industrial Revolution, sabatoged said revolution through application of patent monopoly on the steam engine and improvements to it made by competitors.
In 1781, when the superior and independently designed Hornblower engine was put into production, Boulton and Watt went after him with the full force of the legal system. In contrast to Watt, who died a rich man, the inventor Jonathan Hornblower was not only forced to close shop, but found himself ruined and in jail.

Prior to the start of Watt’s commercial production in 1776, there were 130 steam engines in the U.K., most using the inefficient Newcomen design. By 1800, when Watt's patents expired, there were still only 1000 steam engines used in the U.K., of which only 321 were the superior Boulton and Watt engines, the rest being old Newcomen engines. The total horsepower of these engines was 10,000 at best. In 1815, fifteen years after the expiration of the Watt patents, it is estimated that 210,000 horsepower was installed in England alone. After the expiration of the patents in 1800, not only was there an explosion in the production of engines, but steam power finally came into its own as the driving force of the industrial revolution. In the next 30 years steam engines were modified and improved, and such crucial innovations as the steam train, the steamboat and the steam jenny all came into wide usage. Many of the new improvements, such as those of William Bull, Richard Trevithick, and Arthur Woolf, became available by 1804: although developed earlier these innovations were kept idle until the Boulton and Watt patent expired. None of these innovators wished to incur the same fate as Jonathan Hornblower.

There are a good number of other wonderful examples and a great theoretical analysis throughout. We'll likely return to some of these in future postings.

This was the first in a series of stories about seminal inventions hindered by patents. Read Part II or Part III.


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