In late 1764, while repairing a small Newcomen steam engine, the idea of allowing steam to expand and condense in separate containers sprang into the mind of James Watt. He spent the next few months in unceasing labor building a model of the new engine. In 1768, after a series of improvements and substantial borrowing, he applied for a patent on the idea, requiring him to travel to London in August. He spent the next six months working hard to obtain his patent. It was finally awarded in January of the following year. Nothing much happened by way of production until 1775. Then, with a major effort supported by his business partner, the rich industrialist Matthew Boulton, Watt secured an Act of Parliament extending his patent until the year 1800. The great statesman Edmund Burke spoke eloquently in Parliament in the name of economic freedom and against the creation of unnecessary monopoly – but to no avail.1 The connections of Watt’s partner Boulton were too solid to be defeated by simple principle.
Once Watt’s patents were secured and production started, a substantial portion of his energy was devoted to fending off rival inventors. In 1782, Watt secured an additional patent, made “necessary in consequence of ... having been so unfairly anticipated, by [Matthew] Wasborough in the crank motion.”2 More dramatically, in the 1790s, when the superior Hornblower engine was put into production, Boulton and Watt went after him with the full force of the legal system.3
During the period of Watt’s patents the U.K. added about 750 horsepower of steam engines per year. In the thirty years following Watt’s patents, additional horsepower was added at a rate of more than 4,000 per year. Moreover, the fuel efficiency of steam engines changed little during the period of Watt’s patent; while between 1810 and 1835 it is estimated to have increased by a factor of five.4
After the expiration of Watt’s patents, not only was there an explosion in the production and efficiency of engines, but steam power came into its own as the driving force of the industrial revolution. Over a thirty year period steam engines were modified and improved as crucial innovations such as the steam train, the steamboat and the steam jenny came into wide usage. The key innovation was the high-pressure steam engine – development of which had been blocked by Watt’s strategic use of his patent. Many new improvements to the steam engine, 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.5
Ironically, not only did Watt use the patent system as a legal cudgel with which to smash competition, but his own efforts at developing a superior steam engine were hindered by the very same patent system he used to keep competitors at bay. An important limitation of the original Newcomen engine was its inability to deliver a steady rotary motion. The most convenient solution, involving the combined use of the crank and a flywheel, relied on a method patented by James Pickard, which prevented Watt from using it. Watt also made various attempts at efficiently transforming reciprocating into rotary motion, reaching, apparently, the same solution as Pickard. But the existence of a patent forced him to contrive an alternative less efficient mechanical device, the “sun and planet” gear. It was only in 1794, after the expiration of Pickard’s patent that Boulton and Watt adopted the economically and technically superior crank.6
The impact of the expiration of his patents on Watt’s empire may come as a surprise. As might be expected, when the patents expired “many establishments for making steam-engines of Mr. Watt's principle were then commenced.” However, Watt’s competitors “principally aimed at...cheapness rather than excellence.” As a result, we find that far from being driven out of business “Boulton and Watt for many years afterwards kept up their price and had increased orders.”7
In fact, it is only after their patents expired that Boulton and Watt really started to manufacture steam engines. Before then their activity consisted primarily of extracting hefty monopolistic royalties through licensing. Independent contractors produced most of the parts, and Boulton and Watt merely oversaw the assembly of the components by the purchasers.
In most histories, James Watt is a heroic inventor, responsible for the beginning of the industrial revolution. The facts suggest an alternative interpretation. Watt is one of many clever inventors working to improve steam power in the second half of the eighteenth century. After getting one step ahead of the pack, he remained ahead not by superior innovation, but by superior exploitation of the legal system. The fact that his business partner was a wealthy man with strong connections in Parliament, was not a minor help.
Was Watt’s patent a crucial incentive needed to trigger his inventive genius, as the traditional history suggests? Or did his use of the legal system to inhibit competition set back the industrial revolution by a decade or two? More broadly, are the two essential components of our current system of intellectual property – patents and copyrights – with all of their many faults, a necessary evil we must put up with to enjoy the fruits of invention and creativity? Or are they just unnecessary evils, the relics of an earlier time when governments routinely granted monopolies to favored courtiers? That is the question we seek to answer.
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