Patents – James Watt

April 25, 2005

The original purpose of a patent is to protect its inventor for a period of time. Giving the inventor absolute monopoly. Often this monopoly is being abused. Instead of using that time to recuperate losses and improve the product, court battles erupt where competitors are harassed for copying the concept and lo and behold, improving upon it. Thereby bringing bankruptcy to those who copied and improved the invention. This hampers progress, most of the time on a large scale like in the case of James Watt (1736 – 1819). James Watt, inventor of the separate condenser, obtained his patent for ‘A new Method of Lessening the Consumption of Steam and Fuel in Fire Engines’ in 1769. And that would be the start of the patent wars [1] thereby:

‘ clog engineering enterprise for more than a generation.’
— John Farey (written in 1827) [1]


‘Watt’s vigorous defence of his separate condenser patent blocked wider access to the greatest single improvement in engine efficiency ever and stifled adequate investigation into alternatives.’[1]

Which resulted in increased pollution of utilizing more cheap primitive steam-engines which weren’t as advanced as Watts improved models. This wasn’t necessary at all and hindered progress because people weren’t allowed to improve.

And that story is positive compared where it stands today what patents concerns. Patents have become, particularly in de the US, much more poisonous. In the past, it was impossible to patent an idea. You had to realize an idea in a material form. But today, there are regions in the world, like the US, where it is pretty normal to patent fantasies. Just make it up. Describe it vaguely and ask a patent for the abstract, because that is what it truly is, an idea. The change is high that you will get it. Wait for a few years until somebody copies and implements your idea, sue him and profit.

That is the world for the vulture, not the inventor.

Abstract ideas have and are being patented in recorded pace in the US. From business processes to algorithms, which are heavenly in use in the software field. This makes it even possible that someone can patent thought processes in the brain which could be in the form of a mathematical algorithm (this could be implemented in a machine). Thereby making thinking an asset which could be taxed [2] by the company or an other entity who patented the thought process (of thinking). This would be hideous. Only minds who have become complete perverted by privatization thinking will defend this procedure as something just.

Patents and copyright are hindering the flow of knowledge and are becoming a threat for human progress. Therefore they should be curtailed or abolished because they threat an advancement: producing everything at home.


[1] The patent battles (text from Making of the Modern World)

While Watt’s engine was the best available, he still faced major challenges. Cornish miners objected to paying a premium for using his engine and other engineers wanted a share of the lucrative engine market.

In 1781 Jonathan Hornblower patented an engine that infringed Watt’s 1769 patent by using a separate condenser. Hornblower failed to obtain an extension on his patent and Boulton & Watt saw off a succession of pirates. However, the real battle was yet to come.

Jabez Hornblower, brother of Jonathan, was a man of ‘bad-tempered and ungracious disposition’. In 1795 he began building engines that used the separate condenser and Boulton & Watt served an injunction against him. On December 16, 1796, a court found against Hornblower. He appealed on the grounds that Watt’s patent was invalid.

The judgment was withheld until January 1799 while a similar case was tried against Edward Bull, whose engine design also infringed Watt’s patent. Eventually the court affirmed its judgment supporting Watt, who immediately began collecting huge premium arrears in Cornwall.

For all their success at suppressing wider use of the separate condenser, Boulton & Watt built only a quarter of the engines used in Britain in 1800 – approximately 500 out of 2000. But they possessed a qualitative edge that other makers could not match.

Revolutionary or reactionary?
Technically, James Watt’s steam engine was the best available up until 1800. But it has been claimed Watt’s vigorous defence of his separate condenser patent blocked wider access to the greatest single improvement in engine efficiency ever and stifled adequate investigation into alternatives.

Boulton & Watt refused to license other engine builders to use the separate condenser. Industry faced the choice of paying Watt the premium or using a less efficient atmospheric engine. Whatever their choice, the price in fuel or premium payments was heavy.

Beyond 1800 Watt’s company held an unassailable position despite the ending of his patents. In 1827 John Farey wrote: ‘Men of superior intellect, who might have been induced to investigate the subject, have been led to suppose that nothing further remains to be perfected’

With hindsight this was manifestly not the case. The road to the larger and more efficient engines demanded by industry lay in the adoption of higher steam pressures.

But for the time being at least ‘the authority he [Watt] wielded was such as to clog engineering enterprise for more than a generation.’


[2] Although we don’t understand the inner workings of the brain, we are able to monitor patterns, like thinking patterns. Every time a thinking pattern is detected than this could be taxed. It would be insane if we would do this.