The Patent Race

“The spinning wheel made England into a powerhouse.”
Mark Frauenfelder, Editor-in-chief, MAKE

Cotton Thread

We like to choose sides. It makes everything less complex because we allow ourselves to identify emotionally with something we value deeply. We cheer for a home team to show loyalty to our community. We give to a special cause because we believe in their mission statement. We evaluate situations based on right and wrong because we want, in the end, to achieve a fair and equitable society.

The Richard Arkwright narrative presents us with a dilemma. Which side should we choose? Did Richard Arkwright take advantage of Thomas Highs, John Kay and James Hargreaves? Or should we applaud Richard Arkwright for introducing a business model that provided employment for thousands in his time and for which we continue to receive benefit today? When we look back, it is easy to apply the perspective of our generation and pronounce judgement. Perhaps it would be better to ask whether there was an alternative.  Could these events have unfolded in a more equitable fashion?

The background story:  Between 1763-1764 Thomas Highs, the reed-maker, commissioned John Kay, the clock-maker and close neighbour, to build a working metal model of Highs’ invention, a cotton-spinning machine.   Thomas Highs, who lacked the finances to develop or patent his idea, eventually abandoned the project.  Around the same time, Richard Arkwright’s interest in the textile trade had reached the stage of exploration.  Some would say it was a lucky coincidence that he met John Kay on one of his business trips.  Over drinks at a local pub, John Kay furnished Richard Arkwright with the secrets of Thomas Highs’ machine.  In 1768, Arkwright and Kay set up shop in Nottingham, the centre of the textile trade and the home of James Hargreaves.  Arkwright, with monies from his wig enterprise, employed Kay to produce the spinning frame based on Highs’ invention.

Masson Mill - Spinning Frame

Masson Mill – Spinning Frame

In 1769, ever the shrewd businessman, Richard Arkwright patented the water-frame, which was the water-powered version of the spinning frame.  Meanwhile, in 1770, James Hargreaves, took steps to patent his invention, the spinning jenny, so he could take legal action against all of the Lancashire manufacturers who were using his invention without giving him credit or monetary compensation. In 1775, Richard Arkwright applied for a variety of patents, all relating to the manufacturing of cotton thread, from cleaning, carding to the final spinning process.   With the patents securely in place, Richard Arkwright moved a step closer to securing his fortune from manufacturing cotton thread used to produce a cheap white or unbleached cotton fabric. The claims and counterclaims would come, but the textile industry’s transformation was underway.

The Arkwright narrative demonstrates that technological advances are a result of combined talents.  Without the creative genius of Thomas Highs, Richard Arkwright’s vision to produce inexpensive cloth would not have come into being.   Similarly, without the entrepreneurship of Richard Arkwright, the technology may never have gathered momentum.

This defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.” 
Peter F. Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles

 

Next Post – Claims & Counterclaims

 

107 thoughts on “The Patent Race

    • Now that would be an interesting research project. Everyone thinks that it was Thomas Edison who invented the light-bulb in 1879. At least that is what I was taught in grade school. But nothing is ever that simple when it comes to inventions. Generally it is an incremental story. In the case of the light-bulb, as you probably know, Humphrey Davie, an Englishmen, started the whole process in 1806, 70 years earlier… 🙂

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  1. I really admire how you can write from an objective perspective.
    “When we look back, it is easy to apply the perspective of our generation and pronounce judgement.” This statement is especially profound and can be applied to so many issues. You don’t post very often these days, but when you do, wow. Love the photo of the spools. So colorful!

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    • Thank you, LaVagabonde! Ever since my computer meltdown 2 1/2 weeks ago, I have been playing catch-up. There is so much to this story that I am applying to my daily interactions. We are given a certain amount of years; what we do within these years must be meaningful to us. It seems that it is easier to measure happiness and success by the dictates of others, rather than to determine the merits of the benchmarks we impose upon ourselves. I continue to learn; for me, that is the greatest gift. 🙂

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    • Every time I post in the late hours or early hours of a new day, I know that you are on the other side of the cable wires. Great to be connected!!! The colours surprised me! I thought that I would be seeing primarily white or beige, but they were already moving towards mixing colours on the looms (see later posts). The Industrial Revolution, has difficult stories, but there were remarkable achievements in science, medicine, human rights. I am enjoying the research! 🙂 Thank you for stopping by… 🙂

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  2. Clan, Over the past several months I have read your historical posts of events and actions that have shaped our world. I have enjoyed these history lessons, and have come to really look forward to them. Thank you, you take classes I had in both HS and College and make them truly enjoyable. Take care, Bill

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    • Thank you for your encouraging words, Bill. Just this last week, I had a chance to experience once again how the academic community views history. While I like structure, I prefer to view history as a narrative about humanity – it is our story – hopes, fears, joys, triumphs. Looking back reminds me that we must live our lives with a historical mindset. In a hundred years, I wonder what they will write about our generation?

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    • Thank you!!! I agree – progress is a joint effort. One of my most favourite quotes on “personal” progress, (for human progress is the sum of individual progress) comes from C.S. Lewis. Generally we see progress as a forward movement. Sometimes is is quite the opposite.

      “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.
      If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” C.S. Lewis

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  3. Where ego prevails no credit is shared but for the self. Acts of self indulgence at the cost of not acknowledging (giving credit) where do lends to demoralizing a human, a city, a county, a nation, etc. Where acts of kindness prevails, and fairness reigns, “we” can live in the faith of the trust that relationships bring. I just finished watching a documentary (http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/behind-new-documentary-about-michael-morton) that your post reminds me of (very dissimilar situation but the same with regards to self-protection and in the case of the movie, a worst case scenario of the harm that can come to an individual at the hands of dishonesty and selfishness). This also happens in university settings where it’s team work that helps one individual win a Nobel Peace Prize, or some other acclaimed title and yet more often than not get no credit. My philosophy = live with the heart, be fair, and what I do to you I do to me. Thank you, Rebecca.

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    • “live with the heart, be fair, and what I do to you I do to me.” Beautiful said, Paulette! I have been following the Michael Morton story closely for it is story about progress towards a more fair and equitable society. I have been revisiting some of Maya Angelou’s poetry and thoughts lately. What comes to mind is the quote “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” During the Industrial Revolution, there were those courageous men and women who fought for the rights of children, women and labour. We must continue their legacy. As you said so eloquently “what I do to you, I do to me.”

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  4. Es braucht manchmal viele Faktoren wie unter anderem Weitsicht, Kühnheit, Zufall und Geldgeber, um wichtige technologische Neuerungen, die uns Menschen von Nutzen sind, zum Durchbruch zu verhelfen. Dein interessanter Report hat mir sehr gefallen. Geniesse die Sommerzeit, Rebecca.
    Ich sende einen lieben zu Dir Gruss.
    Ernst
    It sometimes takes many factors such as, among others, foresight, boldness, chance and financiers, to provide redress to key technological innovations which are of benefit to us humans breakthrough. Your interesting report I really liked. Enjoy the summer time, Rebecca.
    I send a greeting to love you

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    • Thank you so much for your visit and comments! I have learned a great deal from the Arkwright narrative. To me, progress is about everyone moving forward – no one left behind! 🙂

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  5. First of all the photos are simply wonderful.

    Who would have known all this and that even way back then there were nefarious goings on. I can’t wait to read about the claims and counter-claims. In this day of nearly ‘instant’ information I think we lose sight of how things were done in past days.

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    • How very well said! We do lose sight of the past. Sometimes, I think that we lose sight of the present, despite our rich and vibrant global community. There are so many messages that come our way, it is easy to lose perspective. Sometimes, it is good to take time for a cup of tea in the afternoon – just to remind ourselves to breathe!

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    • You always make my day with your encouraging comments!!! This series of posts came up because my son organized an “Industrial Revolution” tour last summer. There are so many stories – brave men and women!! Their stories get lot in the dates and events. So I am going back! It has been a great deal of fun.

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  6. Rebecca, your posts never cease to intrigue me! It is true that inventions don’t happen alone and that we really do build off of one another’s ideas. You gave a great example of that here. By the way the ‘spinning jenny’ is a funny term that caught my eye lol

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    • The word “spinning jenny” has great appeal because of the story behind it. Jenny (Hargreaves wife or daughter) knocked over a spinning wheel, which gave him the idea. It turns out that Hargreaves did not have a wife or daughter called “Jenny” so it seems that the name was actually the abbreviation of “engine.” This proves that we like stories and story tellers.

      I was doing a bit of looking of forward to future inventions. Star Trek is not far off…. right now, they are working on an invisibility cloak, teleportation, and a tricorder!!! It is all about believing the impossible. 🙂 🙂 🙂

      “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” Walt Disney

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  7. Very interesting Rebecca! 🙂 I wonder what kind of material for clothes we’d all be wearing today, if it wasn’t for the clever inventive mind that believes there must always be more? We might still be in animal skins! 😀 And I agree with your point about the employment of people in those days. Some of it was harsh and unfair, but there absolutely was nothing else other than The Workhouse, and that was a place greatly feared, and I don’t blame them!

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    • I agree – we owe a great deal to the inventors. They had to believe something was possible, even when everyone said it was impossible. 🙂 🙂 🙂

      I always think of Ebeneezer Scrooge when I hear the word “workhouses.” When I looked into the history, workhouses were set up to help those unable to support themselves. They were meant to offer accommodation and employment. It was a noble idea that went radically astray.

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  8. Your posts are so informative Clanmother. I love that you take topics and people we may have studied years ago in school and study them from a humanistic point of view.

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    • Thank you so much, LuAnn. History has no meaning to us unless we connect is to our humanity. Aldous Huxley once said, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

      A few weeks ago, I ran across a journal where I had scribbled the words: “I want to look back to give meaning to the present and optimism for the future.” That was over 6 years ago. While I didn’t set up a blog at that time, that is when I mark the beginning of my blogging journey. It was a clear summer day and I was at a baseball game. It was the 6th inning. Isn’t it interesting how we remember important moments, that seem significant at the time but when we look back, it was a decision point.

      You comments are very much appreciated!

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    • How well said! They did have their own side to the story, which makes it all the more interesting. Historians attempt to interpret exactly what happened a couple of centuries ago, but there is always a bit of guestimation. Even when I look back a couple of decades, I do not recall exactly what I said or felt at a particular moment. Coincidentally, this is my quote for today, which says it better than I could:

      “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

      http://celebrationart.blogspot.ca/2014/07/183365-nostalgia.html

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  9. I enjoyed reading your very interesting post about inventors and entrepreneurs and despite the fact that I have some problems with the various names of these special people, I also think that usually several different people (f.e. one who invents, one who provides the money and one who can sell the product) are needed before one can earn money with a product.
    Many thanks and have a good time in Vancouver. Very best regards

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    • Thank you so much for adding depth to the discussion. I agree – progress and transformation happens within a community of like-minded individuals. When the time comes to share the rewards, however, there is always the question of how to divide the resources. That is when the debate starts over who put the most time, effort and money into the project. What I find fascinating is that, despite it all, progress continues, and we are swept forward….

      All the best from sunny Vancouver!!!!

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      • Dear Rebecco, many thanks for your detailed answer and you optimism. I agree that man continues to invent new things but I’m not so convinced that we really make progress as human beings in the sense that we have learned to handle f.e. greed or honesty better, which for me would be an even bigger achievement than just material products.
        Unfortunately, there isn’t much sun to see here in Ticino nut never mind. Have a good day:)

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      • I agree – I think that humanity will always face that learning challenge (overcoming greed etc). One of my favourite authors is Robert Louis Stevenson. He sums up the choices we must make as individuals. For in the end, our choices are all that we can control.

        “In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.”
        Robert Louis Stevenson

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  10. Very interesting story as always, and educational too! I always thought Thomas Edison invented the light-bulb in 1879. I totally had no idea that Humphrey Davie was part of that ‘light miracle.’ 🙂

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    • And there was also Hiram Maxim and Joseph Swan that laid claim to the light bulb. Which suggests to me, that ideas spring up independently throughout the world. Now, that would be an very interesting study!!! 🙂

      Thank you so much for stopping by – always appreciate your thoughts.

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  11. I love these posts, Rebecca. You know I’m doing some work with Croome Court and Adams was instrumental in creating some of the wonderful rooms there.

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  12. Thank you a very interesting piece, not just the historical aspects but also confirms my suspicion, having been involved in a number of start ups over many years, that the person with the original ideas has ensure that he collaborates and keeps up with the movers and shakers he gets on board with. I have seen several fall aside when the money men have come into the equation.

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    • Thank you for you comments, which speak to the heart of what we consider fair and equitable. What is interesting about this narrative (and it is far from over) is that progress of the magnitude experienced during the Industrial Revolution required the input of all talents, from business, to inventor, to craftsmen, to workers. The middle class was created during the Industrial Revolution, however there were many would lived in horrific conditions. The question that remains, was there an more equitable way to generate this type of growth? If so, what implications are there for our generation?

      Your visit and comments are very much appreciated. 🙂

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  13. Hi Rebecca, I just realised that I have not been getting your posts – I wondered what I was missing in my life! 🙂 Not sure why my settings got changed but I have sorted that now and you should be back with me 🙂 🙂 Anyway, what a cracker this one is, as all your other commentators have said, and I love your Robert Louis Stevenson quote in response to one of them. X

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    • Dear Robert Louis Stevenson. He had such a full life. I just read about the last Queen of Hawaii and found that he was great friends with the royal household. As for the missing posts in the reader, I have figured out that when there is a change in templates, the reader sometimes drops the posts. Not certain why, but it has happened to me several times. Great to see your comments!! Have a wonderful weekend. Sunshine in Vancouver. 🙂

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  14. I think your article reflects the world at large– we all seem to build on one another’s ideas and genius–we are all interconnected. It would have been great if Richard Arkwright had recognized Thomas Highs with some coins, did he at all? Your article’s idea of how one genius builds upon another reminded me of a recent writing I read in “World” (Saudi Aramco…Amy/June 2014 issue) “Hazy was here, Robinson Crusoe” by Tom Verde, in which Verde traces the idea of man marooned on an island the entire distance back to Babylonian astronomers. I had given Daniel Defoe too much credit! LOL All the same thought line, I think technology today has also been build upon the genius of yesterday. Great writing, as always! You are an inspiration to me!

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    • How fascinating! We seem to have repeating stories throughout history. I have just read that there are some that believe that DNA carries memories, that scientific research is now suggesting that this may be a real possibility. While I understand the pitfalls of plagiarism, there is a fine line of building upon other people’s ideas. When I was reading a biography of Shakespeare, I found out that it was acceptable to share ideas. I think where we fail is that we all want to, in some way, be important, to be the innovator. To me, the best part is to be an active participant. Thank you for adding depth to this dialogue. Very must appreciated.

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  15. Hi My dear friend. It’s been long I didn’t visit this extraordinary blog. I always love to read what you write. A great story that I’ve never known before. Thank you for sharing with us.

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  16. I can’t believe I missed this post, Clanmother! I am so sorry! It is truly a fascinating story! I’d love to see a documentary made about this. Thank you for sharing! x

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    • Thank you so much for your encouraging comments. Sorry for the late response. I’m in Scotland, following the bagpipes so my internet connection is intermittant. I’m really enjoying your blog – you have inspired me to leave sugar behind!!!

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