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

Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 54, November 2011

34 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2010 Last revised: 17 Jan 2015

George Selgin

The Cato Institute; University of Georgia

John L. Turner

University of Georgia - C. Herman and Mary Virginia Terry College of Business - Department of Economics

Date Written: April 14, 2010

Abstract

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 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.

Keywords: Steam engines, James Watt, intellectul monopoly, patents

JEL Classification: O31, K11, L43

Suggested Citation

Selgin, George and Turner, John L., Strong Steam, Weak Patents, or, the Myth of Watt’s Innovation-Blocking Monopoly, Exploded (April 14, 2010). Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 54, November 2011 . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1589712

George Selgin (Contact Author)

The Cato Institute ( email )

1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.cato.org/centers/center-monetary-financial-alternatives

University of Georgia ( email )

Athens, GA 30602-6254
United States
706-542-2734 (Phone)
706-542-3376 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.terry.uga.edu/~selgin/

John L. Turner

University of Georgia - C. Herman and Mary Virginia Terry College of Business - Department of Economics ( email )

Athens, GA 30602-6254
United States

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