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Strong Steam, Weak Patents, or the Myth of Watt's Innovation-Blocking Monopoly, Exploded

Listed author(s):
  • George Selgin
  • John L. Turner

James Watt's 1769 patent is widely supposed to have stood in the way of the development of high-pressure steam technology until it finally expired in 1800. We dispute this popular claim. We show that although it is true that high-pressure steam technology developed only after the expiration of Watt's patent, the delay was due to factors other than that patent itself, including the widely held opinion that the use of high-pressure engines were excessively risky. Indeed, Watt's monopoly rights may actually have hastened the development of the high-pressure steam engine by inspiring Richard Trevithick to revive a supposedly obsolete technology so as to invent around them.

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File URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/658495
Download Restriction: Access to the online full text or PDF requires a subscription.

File URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/658495
Download Restriction: Access to the online full text or PDF requires a subscription.

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Article provided by University of Chicago Press in its journal The Journal of Law and Economics.

Volume (Year): 54 (2011)
Issue (Month): 4 ()
Pages: 841-861

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Handle: RePEc:ucp:jlawec:doi:10.1086/658495
Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/JLE/

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  1. Nicholas Crafts, 2003. "Steam as a general purpose technology: a growth accounting perspective," Economic History Working Papers 22354, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
  2. Richard N. Langlois & amd David J. Denault & Samson M. Kimenyi, 1995. "Bursting Boilers and the Federal Power Redux: The Evolution of Safety on the Western Rivers," Economic History 9503002, EconWPA.
  3. Suzanne Scotchmer, 1991. "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Cumulative Research and the Patent Law," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 5(1), pages 29-41, Winter.
  4. Kitch, Edmund W, 1977. "The Nature and Function of the Patent System," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 20(2), pages 265-290, October.
  5. Alessandro Nuvolari, 2004. "Collective invention during the British Industrial Revolution: the case of the Cornish pumping engine," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 28(3), pages 347-363, May.
  6. Halsey, Harlan I., 1981. "The Choice Between High-Pressure and Low-Pressure Steam Power in America in the Early Nineteenth Century," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 41(04), pages 723-744, December.
  7. MacLeod Christine & Nuvolari Alessandro, 2016. "Inventive Activities, Patents and Early Industrialisation: A Synthesis of Research Issues," Rivista di storia economica, Società editrice il Mulino, issue 1, pages 77-108.
  8. Alessandro Nuvolari & Bart Verspagen, 2009. "Technical choice, innovation, and British steam engineering, 1800-50 -super-1," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 62(3), pages 685-710, 08.
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