History

Steam Engine Time Delay

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Over at mises.org, Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine challenge the standard story of James Watt and the steam engine. Their conclusion:

wattengine

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….

[T]he granting of the 1769 and especially of the 1775 patents likely delayed the mass adoption of the steam engine: innovation was stifled until his patents expired; and few steam engines were built during the period of Watt's legal monopoly. From the number of innovations that occurred immediately after the expiration of the patent, it appears that Watt's competitors simply waited until then before releasing their own innovations. This should not surprise us: new steam engines, no matter how much better than Watt's, had to use the idea of a separate condenser. Because the 1775 patent provided Boulton and Watt with a monopoly over that idea, plentiful other improvements of great social and economic value could not be implemented. By the same token, until 1794 Boulton and Watt's engines were less efficient they could have been because the Pickard's patent prevented anyone else from using, and improving, the idea of combining a crank with a flywheel.

Also, we see that Watt's inventive skills were badly allocated: we find him spending more time engaged in legal action to establish and preserve his monopoly than he did in the actual improvement and production of his engine.

The article is excerpted from Boldrin and Levine's book Against Intellectual Monopoly, which you can read for free on their website.