The constraining role of IP and patents (1): case study of steam engine innovation

* Article: Do Patents Encourage or Hinder Innovation? The Case of the Steam Engine. by Michele Boldrin, David K. Levine, and Alessandro Nuvolari. The Freeman, December 2008 • Volume: 58 • Issue: 10

Excerpted from a longer case study cited above:

“The impact of patents on innovation does have an objective answer. In this case history instead of nature has been kind enough to provide us with a wonderful natural experiment. This experiment took place in the county of Cornwall, England, between 1772 and 1852. It was there, in the extreme southwest of England, in the wet depths of the Cornish copper and tin mines, far removed from the supply of coal in Wales, that the steam engine was pioneered.

To examine innovation in steam technology, we need a measure of how good a steam engine is. One important measure is the amount of work delivered by a given amount of fuel. This can be measured by the duty of a steam engine: the number of pounds of water that can be lifted one foot for each 94 pounds of coal consumed.

In 1772 steam engines were of the so-called Newcomen design of which the best had a duty of 10 million foot-pounds (10M). In 1777 Matthew Boulton and James Watt began selling the first steam engines with a separate condenser. These initially had a duty of 18M, rising by 1792 to a peak of 26M. There things rested until 1814 when the use of the high-pressure design of Richard Trevithick led to engines with a duty of 55M. The duty then rose relatively continuously until it reached a peak of 110M in 1852.

To summarize: During the 42 years from 1772 to 1813 duty rose 3.8 percent per year; during the 38 years from 1814 to 1852 duty rose more than twice as fast—8.5 percent per year. The evolution of the duty is charted in the figure. The state of innovation is best represented by the best engine currently being produced, but for completeness the average and minimum duty of constructed engines is reported. The decline in duty growth after 1852 reflects both the general decline of the Cornish mining industry and the more difficult conditions in which steam engines were forced to operate due to the deepening of the mines.

As it happens there is one critical difference between the earlier period and the later period. By patenting the separate condenser Boulton and Watt, from 1769 to 1800, had almost absolute control on the development of the steam engine. They were able to use the power of their patent and the legal system to frustrate the efforts of engineers such as Jonathan Hornblower to further improve the fuel efficiency of the steam engine. By way of contrast, and fortunately, Trevithick did not patent his equally innovative high-pressure design.

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. The impact of the expiration of Watt’s patents on his empire may come as a surprise as well. Far from being driven out of business, Boulton and Watt for many years were able to charge a premium over the price of other steam engine manufacturers.

Here we see clearly the upside and the downside of the patent system in action. The upside is that it may be the case that the prospect of a 31-year monopoly induced Watt to spend three and a half years of his life—between late 1764, when he first was asked to repair a steam engine, and mid-1768, when he applied for patents on his improved design—working to improve steam technology.

The downsides are two. The first is that the reward to success bears no relation to the cost of invention. In what respect is it necessary, reasonable, or fair to grant a 31-year monopoly and make a man fabulously wealthy because he spent a few years working on a project that benefited his fellow man? Certainly this kind of inducement was not needed for Trevithick, whose contribution to steam technology raised the duty 110 percent as against Watt’s contribution, which raised the duty only 80 percent.

The second downside of the patent system is the devastating effect it has on incremental innovation. From 1786 to 1800 there was no increase in the duty of steam engines at all, as Boulton and Watt successfully sought to prevent competition by suppressing innovation. This should be a cautionary note for people who think that the current wave of patent litigation triggered by a system of software patents created by the courts is likely to have a beneficial impact on software innovation.”

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