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Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power

Author(s):Ben-Atar, Doron S.
Reviewer(s):Jeremy, David

Published by EH.NET (October 2004)

Doron S. Ben-Atar, Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xxi + 281 pp. $38 (cloth), ISBN: 0-300-10006-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Jeremy, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.

Intellectual property, a vast and intensively-contested terrain in the twenty-first century chiefly registered in patents and copyright, has been at the heart of industrial development. This study traces its roots in colonial and early-national America. While much of the ground covered will be familiar to specialists, Ben-Atar has woven a broad synthesis that integrates the policies and strategies of political leaders with the tactics of artisans and manufacturers. His concern is the policy level of transatlantic technology transfer, not the details of the actual transfers or the nature of specific technical secrets, though some of the former are mentioned en passant. The unfolding story he tells runs much as follows.

For over a century the transatlantic flow of technological knowledge was circumscribed by the infant colonies’ symbiotic mercantilist relationship with the metropolis. In this situation colonial patent awards, infrequently made in any case, did not distinguish between inventions introduced from Europe and those new to the world. Identifying the latter would have been as impossible as defending their monopoly rights. With the Revolution, intellectual property concerns were eclipsed by military struggle.

A pivotal figure in the mid-eighteenth century decades was Benjamin Franklin. The Iron Act of 1751 provoked his published view that, rather than complement, the colonists should copy technological ingenuities of the mother country. While he himself declined to patent his improved wood-burning stove, Franklin advocated patents as means of motivating inventors. Yet invention, he thought, should be directed towards the promotion of agricultural communities, rather than the industrial society that he, from first-hand observation, believed to be blighting European development.

The early national period (the subject of three out of Ben-Atar’s seven chapters) witnessed a variety of American attitudes towards the acquisition of European technology. Franklin, now the U.S.’s diplomat in Paris, might bemoan, and discreetly work against, England’s prohibitions on artisan emigration and machinery export; publicly he was obliged to respect the laws of other nations.

For articulate Americans in the late 1780s and early 1790s, economic independence returned as a goal as desirable as political independence. Population and urban growth offered manufacturers expanding markets to meet, for which the new technologies emerging in England and Continental Europe were perceived as invaluable. To the acquisitive efforts of individual recruiters and voluntary societies were added the endeavors of the prophets of American industrialization, Tench Coxe and his master, Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury. Both happily violated English law in seducing British workers to move to the U.S.

Ben-Atar’s penultimate chapter, on the construction of the American understanding of intellectual property, is interesting. He sees the career of Thomas Digges, scion of the Maryland elite and international migrant who turned kleptomaniac and industrial spy, as symbolic of the U.S.’s “Janus-faced approach” (p. 148) towards foreign intellectual property rights. For a time even President Washington was minded to sponsor technology piracy. Economic downturn and business failure in the mid-1790s, associated with textile importations from Britain, dampened the enthusiasm for copying the British example. Another official deterrent to intellectual piracy were the Patent Acts of 1790 and 1793 which confined patents to wholly novel inventions. Patents for introducing inventions from abroad were nevertheless granted because, apparently, the head of the U.S. Patent Office, William Thornton, did not insist on applicants swearing the oath of international novelty. A final chapter swiftly, and too easily, runs from the War of 1812 to the Great Exhibition.

As the footnotes testify, this well-written volume draws upon a wide range of related research to illuminate a topic of enduring importance. However, the coverage of American patent law in the first half of the nineteenth century is rather thin. The prohibition on introductory patents ended in 1836. America’s early industrial corporations did not always succeed in defending their patent monopolies (Jeremy 1981: 185-86). Ben-Atar’s judgments on the development of the American patent system would have benefited from use of the Journal of Economic History articles of Sokoloff (1988), Sokoloff and Khan (1990) and Khan (1995). In addition, a couple of bibliographic points occurred to me. Abraham Rees (editor), Cyclopaedia, that vast window on Britain’s early industrial technology, was reprinted in the U.S. between 1805 and 1824, not 1810-42 (p. 206). And I would like to know the location of Benjamin Davies and Thomas Stephens, One Thousand Valuable Secrets in Elegant and Useful Arts (Philadelphia, 1795) (p. 257, n. 57). It is not listed in Evald Rink’s Technical Americana (1981) nor the Library of Congress on-line catalogue.

David J. Jeremy, Emeritus Professor of Business History at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, is editor (with Douglas A. Farnie) of The Fibre that Changed the World: The Cotton Industry in International Perspective, 1600-1990s (Oxford University Press, 2004). He is currently working on an historical study of boardroom culture and governance with special reference to the North West of England.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century