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
Date Written: April 14, 2010
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: Suggested Citation