Age of Invention: Patents vs Prizes

Welcome to my weekly newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

Last week I mentioned some of the prizes offered by the Society of the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce — it rewarded methods to save people from drowning in shipwrecks, and to save workers from inhaling metal dust while grinding needles. I highlighted the scandiscope: a chimney-cleaning brush designed to replace child labour. But what I did not discuss was why so many of the inventions it rewarded had such humanitarian aims.

After all, the Society of Arts did not always advertise specific premiums. In fact, as the decades went on, more and more of the inventions it rewarded were entirely unsolicited, and by the mid-nineteenth century its advertisements had become vague. Whereas in 1760 the Society might go into detail in its call for a rat trap that specifically did not use poison (“the destroying them by arsenic being sometimes attended with great mischief”), by the 1820s the typical advertisement did not bother to specify much at all. In the field of mechanics, the Society would call for “improvement in those objects on which the interests of Great Britain essentially depend, namely, steam-engines, shipping, and the machinery employed in extensive manufactures”. So, pretty much anything.

Yet despite the lack of specification, the kinds of inventions that were rewarded remained pretty similar. This was because of a particular rule, informally in place since the beginning, and made explicit in the early 1760s: inventions submitted to the Society could not be patented. (Nor was anyone supposed to patent an invention that had already won a prize, though a few people broke this rule.)

There were a few reasons for this ban. To start with, some of the Society’s founders had a general distrust of monopolies. William Shipley, the drawing teacher who got the whole thing going, had initially tried out a smaller project for the public good in the 1740s, when he was living in Northampton. Shipley had noted that merchants hoarded wood and coal during the cold winters, selling them at high prices when they were most needed for fuel for heating. These “engrossers” or “forestallers” seemed, to him, to be pursuing personal profit by exploiting the poor. So he set up a public subscription fund that would buy wood and coal in the summer when it was cheap, and sell it to the poor for as little as possible during the winter. He hoped to undercut the fuel engrossers, forcing them to lower their prices.

Such anti-monopolistic strategies continued when Shipley set up the Society of Arts. In the 1750s, for example, the Society advertised a premium for improvements to hand-mills, for grinding corn. The Society’s members feared that poor people in more isolated villages were being “abused by the millers”, whose windmill might be the only one for miles around. If the poor had nowhere else nearby to go to grind their corn, then millers could get away with raising prices and potentially even adulterating the flour. The premium aimed to break the millers’ monopoly. (Incidentally, John Harrison of longitude fame was one of the contestants for the hand-mill prize, as was the famous astronomer James Ferguson. But their designs did not win.)

So the Society’s early members had an aversion to monopolies, and patents are, after all, temporary monopolies. But there was actually a more practical reason to not give rewards to patented inventions. In fact, quite a few active members of the Society were themselves patentees, and patents for inventions were not generally lumped together for condemnation with practices like forestalling and engrossing. The practical reason for banning patents was that there was no point giving a prize for something that people were already doing anyway. Patents were expensive in the eighteenth century — depending on how you account for inflation, it could cost about £300,000 in modern terms to obtain one — so the fact that there was a patent for a process was a clear indication that it might be profitable. The Society, by contrast, was supposed to encourage things that would not otherwise have been done.

Thus, when a patent had already been granted for a process the Society had been considering giving a premium for, it purposefully backed down — not because the prize would infringe on the patent, but because its encouragement was no longer necessary. And so the effect of the ban on patented inventions was that the Society received, even unsolicited, exactly the kinds of inventions that there was less monetary incentive to invent. Occasionally, this meant trivial improvements — minor tweaks, here and there, to existing processes. An engineer might patent one invention, but not see it worth their time patenting another — through the Society’s prizes, they might at least get a bit of cash for it, or some recognition. The improvement would also be promoted through the Society’s publications. Or, the Society received inventions that were far from trivial, like the scandiscope for cleaning chimneys, but which were not all that profitable: inventions that saved lives, or had other beneficial effects on the health and wellbeing of workers and consumers. And finally, the Society received innovations that could not be patented, such as agricultural practices and the opening of new import trades. In the early nineteenth century the Society awarded its prizes to a whole host of naval officers, including an admiral, who came up with flag-based signalling systems between ships — early forms of semaphore.

Another effect of the ban on patents was that the Society also attracted submissions from different demographics. Many of its submissions came from people who were too poor to afford patents, as well as from those who were too rich — wealthy aristocrats for whom commercial considerations might seem vulgar. The poor would generally go for the cash prizes, and the aristocrats for the honorary medals. And the prizes were used by people who might otherwise be socially excluded from invention. In 1758, for example, the Society instructed its members in the American colonies to accept submissions from Native Americans. It also allowed women to claim premiums (just as it allowed them to be members). My favourite example is Ann Williams, postmistress at Gravesend, in Kent, who won twenty guineas from the Society in 1778 for her observations on the feeding and rearing of silk-worms. She kept them in one of the post-office pigeon-holes, referring to them affectionately as “my little family” of “innocent reptiles”. Unlike other elements of society, the Society of Arts accepted, as she put it to them, that “curiosity is inherent to all the daughters of Eve.”

The Society thus encouraged the kinds of inventions that might not otherwise have been created, and catered to the kinds of inventors who might not otherwise have been recognised. Rather than competing with the patent system, it complemented it, filling in the gaps that it left. The Society operated at the margins, and only at the margins, to the better completion of the whole. It found its niche, to the benefit of innovation overall.

As promised, I’ll continue to share more about the Society over the next few weeks, and you’ll be able to read much, much more about in in my book on its history, coming out on 12th May. (By the way, the publishers have kindly arranged for a discount on the hardback edition for subscribers to the newsletter, of 25% off and free shipping worldwide when ordering directly from them, here. Just use the code AAM20.)

Until next week,


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