Monday, 7 September 2009

Machine of the day: Boulton & Watt steam engine

It might not look like much, but this is the invention and the machine that that powered the Industrial Revolution and made the modern world. 

James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine – even the Ancient Greeks had a primitive steam engine – but he and his entrepreneurial partner Matthew Boulton did invent what was necessary for it to power industry, including radically increased fuel efficiency and power, and producing the output by rotation rather than by reciprocating motion. 

The oldest surviving rotative engine was built by Boulton and Watt in 1785 for the London Brewery of Samuel Whitbread to drive the malt crushing mill.  It’s now preserved in Sydney in the Power House Museum.


  1. Watt relied on government award of a commercial monopoly and was able to enforce this monopoly over others attempting to enter the field of steam engine design and construction. His efforts served to frustrate and even bankrupt other engineers, setting back the industrial revolution by many years and failing to secure for himself and his backers anything like the economic rewards they sought.

    Neat machine though.


  2. What Watt & Boulton relied on was government protection of their intellectual property -- primarily (but not confined to) the the ideas of addition of the separate condensor to increase heat efficiency and of the rotating output.

    (These were new values brought into the world by Watt & Boulton, and rightly recognised as something in which they had property.)

    And what allowed the industrial revolution to happen in England was that England was pre-eminent (at the time) in the protection of property rights, and (as a consequence) in the accumulation of capital ready for investment in new ventures.

    Protection of property rights. Something to think about.

  3. PC

    James Watt applied for a patent in 1768 and the government granted one shortly thereafter. In 1775 he and his partner lobbied the government for a term extension to 1800. Special legislation was passed for the purpose. They tried for yet another term extension with the 1800 expiration date fast approaching, this time failing (different parliamentarians and better lobbiests opposing further grant of priviledge). Nevertheless it is noteworthy that in 1782, Watt was awarded another patent through his business partner's contacts in government. This one “necessary in consequence of having been so unfairly anticipated, by Wasborough in the crank motion."

    In the story of Watt we have embodied some of the various problems inherent within the IP. It causes conflicting claims over real property. It relies on arbitrary grant of special priviledge and permission. It relies on patronage, rank and influence peddling. Worse is that it often results in the situation where ideas can be registered and excluded from the very people who generated those ideas in the first instance. It allows retrospective claim and exclusion. It relies on arbitrary definitions and interpretations. Basically the show is a mess.

    IP is subjective. The field is far from objective right from the get go. Which ideas can be owned as property and which can't? Why? Why not? How do you know? What are the specific attributes that make the difference? Why? How are they derived and defined? What is inventive exactly? How is that determined? What is trivial? Can trivial be considered inventive? Why? Why not? What is novel? How can that be definately and finally determined? Indeed, can it ever be finally determined? What is fundamental? Can nested IP validly be considered as independent and rightly be recognised as "belonging" to a different "owner" from the cornerstone IP it nests within? What is prior art and what is not considered as such? Why? Why not? How is that defined? How is priority objectively determined? Should it be first to invent or first to file? Why? Should anyone be allowed to rely on IP for research without license from the "owners" of such IP? Why? Why not? And on it goes.

    This field does not really lend itself to the application of sound objective law, let alone objective determinations or moral behaviour (as Henry Ford well understood). Still, it remains a lucrative legal paradise (and if you think crimnal lawyers make good money, wait until you experience what a good patent attorney or patent lawyer can extract!).

    BTW the industrial revolution was delayed by around 20 years precisely BECAUSE of Watt's government granted monopoly.

    This is one of those situations where the theory seems good until it gets "reduced to practice." Such situations usually mean there is trouble with the theory (i.e. it aint so good after all). I've chased the specifics of this around for many years trying to determine whether the premise is sound and whether or not an objective practice can be developed. In the end I don't see the IP case as anywhere near made. Perhaps it can be, or perhaps there is a fundamental flaw which means it can't be. So, an interesting field that remains vexatious.



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