Did James Watt's patent(s) really delay the industrial revolution?

Sean Bottomley

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

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Perhaps no inventor or invention was as pivotal to the British industrial revolution than James Watt and his separate condenser. By radically improving the fuel efficiency of steam engines, Watt’s condenser was instrumental to steam’s adoption as a power source in a plethora of industrial activities. However, Watt’s patent for the condenser, obtained in 1769 and extended to 1800, is frequently invoked as a classic example of a “blocking” patent, used to stymie subsequent technical developments in steam engineering, in turn delaying industrialization. The chapter refutes this claim using new archival materials, which show that Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton were reluctant litigators who were ultimately willing to license their patented technology to other users. The chapter also provides an analytical narrative of Watt’s condenser, concluding that it is an almost ideal illustration of how patents work to stimulate the development and commercialization of new technology.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe battle over patents
Subtitle of host publicationhistory and the politics of innovation
EditorsStephen Haber, Naomi Lamoreaux
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780197576199, 9780197576182
ISBN (Print)9780197576151, 9780197576168
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2021


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