Mises Daily

James Watt: Monopolist

[Excerpt from “Chapter 1: Introduction” in Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine. Copyright © 2008 Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine. Reproduced with the permission of Cambridge University Press. Additional information may be obtained here.]

James Watt: Monopolist

In late 1764, while repairing a small Newcomen steam engine, the idea of allowing steam to expand and condense in separate containers sprang into the mind of James Watt. He spent the next few months in unceasing labor building a model of the new engine. In 1768, after a series of improvements and substantial borrowing, he applied for a patent on the idea, requiring him to travel to London in August. He spent the next six months working hard to obtain his patent. It was finally awarded in January of the following year. Nothing much happened by way of production until 1775. Then, with a major effort supported by his business partner, the rich industrialist Matthew Boulton, Watt secured an act of Parliament extending his patent until the year 1800. The great statesman Edmund Burke spoke eloquently in Parliament in the name of economic freedom and against the creation of unnecessary monopoly — but to no avail.[1] The connections of Watt’s partner Boulton were too solid to be defeated by simple principle.

Once Watt’s patents were secured and production started, a substantial portion of his energy was devoted to fending off rival inventors. In 1782, Watt secured an additional patent, made “necessary in consequence of ... having been so unfairly anticipated, by [Matthew] Wasborough in the crank motion” [2]. More dramatically, in the 1790s, when the superior Hornblower engine was put into production, Boulton and Watt went after him with the full force of the legal system.[3]

During the period of Watt’s patents the United Kingdom added about 750 horsepower of steam engines per year. In the thirty years following Watt’s patents, additional horsepower was added at a rate of more than 4,000 per year. Moreover, the fuel efficiency of steam engines changed little during the period of Watt’s patent; while between 1810 and 1835 it is estimated to have increased by a factor of five.[4]

After the expiration of Watt’s patents, not only was there an explosion in the production and efficiency of engines, but steam power came into its own as the driving force of the Industrial Revolution. Over a thirty year period steam engines were modified and improved as crucial innovations such as the steam train, the steamboat and the steam jenny came into wide usage. The key innovation was the high-pressure steam engine — development of which had been blocked by Watt’s strategic use of his patent. Many new improvements to the steam engine, such as those of William Bull, Richard Trevithick, and Arthur Woolf, became available by 1804: although developed earlier these innovations were kept idle until the Boulton and Watt patent expired. None of these innovators wished to incur the same fate as Jonathan Hornblower.[5]

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.[6]

The impact of the expiration of his patents on Watt’s empire may come as a surprise. As might be expected, when the patents expired “many establishments for making steam-engines of Mr. Watt’s principle were then commenced.” However, Watt’s competitors “principally aimed at...cheapness rather than excellence.” As a result, we find that far from being driven out of business “Boulton and Watt for many years afterwards kept up their price and had increased orders” [7].

In fact, it is only after their patents expired that Boulton and Watt really started to manufacture steam engines. Before then their activity consisted primarily of extracting hefty monopolistic royalties through licensing. Independent contractors produced most of the parts, and Boulton and Watt merely oversaw the assembly of the components by the purchasers.

In most histories, James Watt is a heroic inventor, responsible for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The facts suggest an alternative interpretation. Watt is one of many clever inventors working to improve steam power in the second half of the eighteenth century. After getting one step ahead of the pack, he remained ahead not by superior innovation, but by superior exploitation of the legal system. The fact that his business partner was a wealthy man with strong connections in Parliament, was not a minor help.

Was Watt’s patent a crucial incentive needed to trigger his inventive genius, as the traditional history suggests? Or did his use of the legal system to inhibit competition set back the industrial revolution by a decade or two? More broadly, are the two essential components of our current system of intellectual property — patents and copyrights — with all of their many faults, a necessary evil we must put up with to enjoy the fruits of invention and creativity? Or are they just unnecessary evils, the relics of an earlier time when governments routinely granted monopolies to favored courtiers? That is the question we seek to answer.

James Watt's 1765 Steam Engine

In the specific case of Watt, the granting of the 1769 and especially of the 1775 patents likely delayed the mass adoption of the steam engine: innovation was stifled until his patents expired; and few steam engines were built during the period of Watt’s legal monopoly. From the number of innovations that occurred immediately after the expiration of the patent, it appears that Watt’s competitors simply waited until then before releasing their own innovations. This should not surprise us: new steam engines, no matter how much better than Watt’s, had to use the idea of a separate condenser. Because the 1775 patent provided Boulton and Watt with a monopoly over that idea, plentiful other improvements of great social and economic value could not be implemented. By the same token, until 1794 Boulton and Watt’s engines were less efficient they could have been because the Pickard’s patent prevented anyone else from using, and improving, the idea of combining a crank with a flywheel.

Also, we see that Watt’s inventive skills were badly allocated: we find him spending more time engaged in legal action to establish and preserve his monopoly than he did in the actual improvement and production of his engine. From a strictly economic point of view Watt did not need such a long-lasting patent — it is estimated that by 1783 — seventeen years before his patent expired — his enterprise had already broken even. Indeed, even after their patent expired, Boulton and Watt were able to maintain a substantial premium over the market by virtue of having been first, despite the fact that their competitors had had thirty years to learn how to make steam engines.

The wasteful effort to suppress competition and obtain special privileges is referred to by economists as rent-seeking behavior. History and common sense show it to be a poisoned fruit of legal monopoly. Watt’s attempt to extend the duration of his 1769 patent is an especially egregious example of rent seeking: the patent extension was clearly unnecessary to provide incentive for the original invention, which had already taken place. On top of this, we see Watt using patents as a tool to suppress innovation by his competitors, such as Hornblower, Wasborough and others. Hornblower’s engine is a perfect case in point: it was a substantial improvement over Watt’s as it introduced the new concept of the “compound engine” with more than one cylinder. This, and not the Boulton and Watt design, was the basis for further steam-engine development after their patents expired. However, because Hornblower built on the earlier work of Watt, making use of his “separate condenser” Boulton and Watt were able to block him in court and effectively put an end to steam-engine development. The monopoly over the “separate condenser,” a useful innovation, blocked the development of another equally useful innovation, the “compound engine,” thereby retarding economic growth. This retardation of innovation is a classical case of what we shall refer to as intellectual-property inefficiency, or IP inefficiency for short.

Finally, there is the slow rate at which the steam engine was adopted before the expiration of Watt’s patent. By keeping prices high and preventing others from producing cheaper or better steam engines, Boulton and Watt hampered capital accumulation and slowed economic growth.

The story of James Watt is a damaging case for the benefits of a patent system, but we shall see that it is not an unusual story. A new idea accrues almost by chance to the innovator while he is carrying out a routine activity aimed at a completely different end. The patent comes many years after that and it is due more to a mixture of legal acumen and abundant resources available to “oil the gears of fortune” than anything else. Finally, after the patent protection is obtained, it is primarily used as a tool to prevent economic progress and hurt competitors.

$30 $27

While this view of Watt’s role in the Industrial Revolution may appear iconoclastic, it is neither new nor particularly original. Frederic Scherer, a prestigious academic supporter of the patent system, after going through the details of the Boulton and Watt story, concluded his 1986 examination of their story with the following illuminating words:

Had there been no patent protection at all,…Boulton and Watt certainly would have been forced to follow a business policy quite different from that which they actually followed. Most of the firm’s profits were derived from royalties on the use of engines rather than from the sale of manufactured engine components, and without patent protection the firm plainly could not have collected royalties. The alternative would have been to emphasize manufacturing and service activities as the principal source of profits, which in fact was the policy adopted when the expiration date of the patent for the separate condenser drew near in the late 1790s…. It is possible to conclude more definitely that the patent litigation activities of Boulton & Watt during the 1790s did not directly incite further technological progress…. Boulton and Watt’s refusal to issue licenses allowing other engine makers to employ the separate-condenser principle clearly retarded the development and introduction of improvements.[8]

[bio] See his [AuthorArchive]. You can subscribe to future articles by Michele Boldrin via this [RSSfeed].

[bio2] See his [AuthorArchive2]. You can subscribe to future articles by David K. Levine via this [RSSfeed2].

Comment on the Mises blog.


[1] Lord [1923] p. 5–3.

[2] Carnegie [1905] p. 157.

[3] Much of the story of James Watt can be found in Carnegie [1905], Lord [1923], and Marsden [2004]. Information on the role of Boulton in Watt’s enterprise is drawn from Mantoux [1905]. A lively description of the real Watt, as well of his legal wars against Hornblower — and many others — and of how he subsequently used his status to alter the public memory of the facts, can be found in Marsden [2004]. That Pickard’s patent was unjust is also the view of Selgin and Turner (2006), who, like Watt, do not seem to provide any evidence of why it was so.

As both the Lord and Carnegie works are out of copyright, both are available online at the very good Rochester site on the history of steam power. Later drafts of this chapter benefited enormously from the arrival of Google Book Search, which allowed us to check so many original historical sources about James Watt and the steam engine we would have never thought possible.

[4] Lord [1923] gives figures on the number of steam engines produced by Boulton and Watt between 1775 and 1800, while the The Cambridge Economic History of Europe [1965] provides data on the spread of total horsepower between 1800 and 1815 and the spread of steam power more broadly. However, Kanefsky [1979] has largely discredited the Lord numbers, which is why we use figures on machines and horsepower from Kanefsky and Robey [1980].

Our horsepower calculations are based on 510 steam engines generating about 5,000 horsepower in the United Kingdom in 1760. During the subsequent forty years we estimate that about 1,740 engines generating about 30,000 horsepower were added. This gives us our estimate that the total increased at a rate of roughly 750 horsepower each year. For 1815 we estimate about 100,000 horsepower — that is, the average of the figures Kanefsky and Robey [1980] give for 1800 and 1830. This together with the 35,000 horsepower we estimate for 1800 gives us our estimate that the total increased at a rate of roughly 4,000 horsepower each year after 1800.

Data on the fuel efficiency, the “duty,” of steam engines is from Nuvolari [2004b].

[5] Kanefsky and Robey [1980] together with Smith [1977–78] provide a careful historical account of the detrimental impact of the Newcomen’s, first, and of Watt’s patents, later, on the rate of adoption of steam technology. Apart from the books just quoted, information about Hornblower’s engine and its relation to Watt’s are widely available through easily accessible web sites, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, and so on. Some details of Hornblower’s invention may be of interest. It was patented in 1781 and consisted of a steam engine with two cylinders, significantly more efficient than the Boulton and Watt design. Boulton and Watt challenged his invention — claiming infringement of their patent because the Hornblower engine used a separate condenser — and won. With the 1799 judicial decision against him, Hornblower had to pay Boulton and Watt a substantial amount of money for past royalties, while losing all opportunities to further develop the compound engine. His compound-steam-engine principle was not revived until 1804 by Arthur Woolf. It became one of the main ingredients in the efficiency explosion that followed the expiration of Boulton and Watt’s patent.

Watt’s low-pressure engines were a dead end for further development; history shows that high-pressure, noncondensing engines were the way forward. Boulton and Watt’s patent, covering all kinds of steam engines prevented anyone from working seriously on the high-pressure version until 1800. This included William Murdoch, an employee of Boulton and Watt, who had developed a version of the high-pressure engine in the early 1780s. He named it the “steam carriage” and was legally barred from developing it by Boulton and Watt’s successful addition of the high-pressure engine to their patent, although Boulton and Watt never spent a cent to develop it. For the details of this story the reader should check the online Cotton Times or Carnegie [1905, pp. 140–141]. The “William Murdoch” entry in Wikipedia provides a good summary. More generally various researchers directly connect Murdoch to Trevithick, who is now considered the official “inventor” (in 1802) of the high-pressure engine. Quite plainly, the evidence suggests that Boulton and Watt’s patent retarded the high-pressure steam engine, and hence economic development, for about 16 years.

[6] The story about Pickard’s patent blocking adoption by Watt is told in von Tunzelmann [1978].

[7] Thompson [1847] p. 110 and quoted also in Lord [1923].

[8] Scherer [1984] pp. 24–25.

All Rights Reserved ©
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute