When Inventors Could Get Patents that Were Durable and Enforceable, “the World Started to Change”

(p. 50) . . . Coke, who had . . . been made Lord Chief Justice of’ England, drafted the 1623 “Act concerning Monopolies and Dispensations with penall Lawes and the Forfeyture thereof,” or, as it has become known, the Statute on Monopolies. The Act was designed to promote the interests of artisans, and eliminate all traces of monopolies.

With a single, and critical, exception. Section 6 of the Statute, which forbade every other form of monopoly, carved out one area in which an exclusive franchise could still be granted: Patents could still be awarded to the person who introduced the invention to the realm–to the “first and true inventor.”
This was a very big deal indeed, though not because it represented the first time inventors received patents. The Venetian Republic was offering some form of patent protection by 1471, and in 1593, the Netherlands’ States-General awarded a patent to Mathys Siverts, for a new (and unnamed) navigational instrument. And, of course, Englishmen like John of Utynam had been receiving patents for inventions ever since Henry VI. The difference between Coke’s statute and the customs in place before and elsewhere is that it was a law, with all that implied for its durability and its enforceability. Once only inventors could receive patents, the world started to change.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)

Ice Entrepreneur Gorrie Died Dispirited for Lack of Funds


Source of book image:

(p. 241) In May of the following year [i.e., in May 1851] Gorrie obtained a patent for the first ice-making machine.
. . .
But he was unable to find adequate backing, and in 1855 he died, a broken and dispirited man.

Burke, James. Connections. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Co., 1978.
(Note: ellipsis and bracketed information added.)

Noise Pollution from “Clean” Wind Energy

(p. A1) VINALHAVEN, Me. — Like nearly all of the residents on this island in Penobscot Bay, Art Lindgren and his wife, Cheryl, celebrated the arrival of three giant wind turbines late last year. That was before they were turned on.

“In the first 10 minutes, our jaws dropped to the ground,” Mr. Lindgren said. “Nobody in the area could believe it. They were so loud.”
Now, the Lindgrens, along with a dozen or so neighbors living less than a mile from the $15 million wind facility here, say the industrial whoosh-and-whoop of the 123-foot blades is making life in this otherwise tranquil corner of the island unbearable.
They are among a small but growing number of families and homeowners across the country who say they have learned the hard way that wind power — a clean alternative to electricity from fossil fuels — is not without emissions of its own.
Lawsuits and complaints about turbine noise, vibrations and subsequent lost property value have cropped up in Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, among other states.

For the full story, see:
TOM ZELLER Jr. “For Those Living Nearby, That Miserable Hum of Clean Energy.” The New York Times (Weds., October 6, 2010): A1 & A3.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 5, 2010 and has the title “For Those Near, the Miserable Hum of Clean Energy.”)

Capitalism’s Market Entrepreneurs Benefit the Common Man

VanderbiltFiskCartoon2010-11-14.jpg“Rails to riches: An 1870 cartoon depicting James Fisk’s attempt to stop Cornelius Vanderbilt from gaining control of the Erie Railroad Company.” Source of caption and cartoon: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

I have read H.W. Brands’ Masters of Enterprise book and found that it contained some interesting anecdotes, but not very insightful interpretation. From Amity Shlaes’ useful review quoted below, I would expect the same from Brands’ most recent book.

(p. C7) Mr. Brands laments that capitalism’s triumph in the late 19th century created a disparity between the “wealthy class” and the common man that dwarfs any difference of income in our modern distribution tables. But this pitting of capitalism against democracy will not hold. When the word “class” crops up in economic discussions, watch out: it implies a perception of society held in thrall to a static economy of rigid social tiers. Capitalism might indeed preclude democracy if capitalism meant that rich people really were a permanent class, always able to keep the money they amass and collect an ever greater share. But Americans are an unruly bunch and do not stay in their classes. The lesson of the late 19th century is that genuine capitalism is a force of creative destruction, just as Joseph Schumpeter later recognized. Snapshots of rich versus poor cannot capture the more important dynamic, which occurs over time.

One capitalist idea (the railroad, say) brutally supplants another (the shipping canal). Within a few generations–and in thoroughly democratic fashion–this supplanting knocks some families out of the top tier and elevates others to it. Some poor families vault to the middle class, others drop out. If Mr. Brands were right, and the “triumph of capitalism” had deadened democracy and created a permanent overclass, Forbes’s 2010 list of billionaires would today be populated by Rockefellers, Morgans and Carnegies. The main legacy of titans, former or current, is that the innovations they support will produce social benefits, from the steel-making to the Internet.
The second failing of “Colossus” is its perpetuation of the robber-baron myth. Years ago, historian Burton Folsom noted the difference between what he labeled political entrepreneurs and market entrepreneurs. The political entrepreneur tends to compete over finite assets–or even to steal them–and therefore deserves the “robber baron” moniker. An example that Mr. Folsom provided: the ferry magnate Robert Fulton, who operated successfully on the Hudson thanks to a 30-year exclusive concession from the New York state legislature. Russia’s petrocrats nowadays enjoy similar protections. Neither Fulton nor the petrocrats qualify as true capitalists.
Market entrepreneurs, by contrast, vanquish the competition by overtaking it. On some days Cornelius Vanderbilt was a political entrepreneur–perhaps when he ruined those traitorous partners, for instance. But most days Vanderbilt typified the market entrepreneur, ruining Fulton’s monopoly in the 1820s with lower fares, the innovative and cost-saving tubular boiler and a splendid advertising logo: “New Jersey Must Be Free.” With market entrepreneurship, a third party also wins: the consumer. Market entrepreneurs are not true robbers, for their ruining serves the common good.

For the full review, see:
AMITY SHLAES. “An Age of Creative Destruction.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 16, 2010): C7.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 29 (sic), 2010.)

The book under critical review by Shlaes:
Brands, H.W. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

The Folsom book rightly praised in passing by Shlaes is:
Folsom, Burton W. The Myth of the Robber Barons. 4th ed: Young America’s Foundation, 2003.

Invention Aided By the Intelligent Hand and Spatial Intelligence

(p. 36) For centuries, certainly ever since Immanuel Kant called the hand the window on the mind,” philosophers have been pondering the very complex way in which the human hand is related to the human mind. Modern neuroscience and evolutionary biology have confirmed the existence of what the Scottish physician and theologian Charles Bell called the intelligent hand. Stephen Pinker of Harvard even argues that early humans’ intelligence increased partly because they were equipped with levers of influence on the world. namely the grippers found at the end of their two arms. We now know that the literally incredible amount of sensitivity and articulation of the human hand, which has increased at roughly the same pace as has the complexity of the human brain, is not merely a product of the pressures of natural selection, butt an initiator of it: The hand has led the brain to evolve just as much as the brain has led the hand. The hands of a pianist, or a painter, or a sushi chef, or even, as with Thomas New-(p. 37)comen, hands that could use a hammer to shape soft iron, are truly, in any functional sense, “intelligent.”

This sort of tactile intelligence was not emphasized in A. P. Usher’s theory of invention, the components of which he filtered through the early twentieth-century school of psychology known as Gestalt theory, which was preeminently a theory of visual behavior. The most important precepts of Gestalt theory (to Usher, anyway, who was utterly taken with their explanatory power) are that the patterns we perceive visually appear all at once, rather than by examining components one at a time, and that a principle of parsimony organizes visual perceptions into their simplest form. Or forms; one of the most famous Gestalt images is the one that can look like either a goblet or two facing profiles. Usher’s enthusiasm for Gestalt psychology explains why, despite his unshakable belief in the inventive talents of ordinary individuals, he devotes an entire chapter of his magnum opus to perhaps the most extraordinary individual in the history of invention: Leonardo da Vinci.
Certainly, Leonardo would deserve a large place in any book on the history of mechanical invention, not only because of his fanciful helicopters and submarines. hut for his very real screw cutting engine, needle making machine, centrifugal pumps, and hundreds more. And Usher found Leonardo an extraordinarily useful symbol in marking the transition in mechanics from pure intuition to the application of science and mathematics.
But the real fascination for Usher was Leonardo’s straddling of two worlds of creativity, the artistic and the inventive. No one, before or since, more clearly demonstrated the importance to invention of what we might call “spatial intelligence”; Leonardo was not an abstract thinker of any great achievement, nor were his mathematical skills, which he taught himself late in life, remarkable. (p. 38) His perceptual skills, on the other hand, developed primarily for his painting, were extraordinary, but they were so extraordinary that Usher could write, “It is only with Leonardo that the process of invention is lifted decisively into the field of the imagination. . . . “

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

Some Hispanics Support Arizona Immigration Law

StoletoSpousesDisagreeArizonaLaw2010-11-14.jpg“Shayne Sotelo opposes Arizona’s new immigration law, while her husband, Efrain, supports it.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 28) PHOENIX — Arizona’s immigration law, which politicians have debated in the Legislature, lawyers have sparred over in the courtroom and advocates have shouted about on the street, has found its way up a driveway in central Phoenix, through the front door and right onto the Sotelo family’s kitchen table.
. . .
That such a divisive social issue would divide some families is not surprising. But what makes the Sotelos stand out is that they are both Latinos, he a Mexican immigrant who was born in the northern state of Chihuahua and she a descendant of Spanish immigrants who grew up in Colorado.
While polls show that a vast majority of Latinos nationwide side with Mrs. Sotelo in opposing Arizona’s law, that opposition is not uniform. “All Latinos are not opposed to this law — that’s too simplistic,” said Cecilia Menjivar, an Arizona State University sociologist. There are other Mr. Sotelos out there, including an Arizona state legislator, Representative Steve B. Montenegro, a Republican who immigrated from El Salvador and became the only Latino lawmaker to vote in favor of the bill.
. . .
[Mr. Sotelo] thinks his adopted state has been unfairly maligned since the law passed. “I’m a Hispanic, and I don’t have any issues walking the streets,” he said. “They make it seem like the police or sheriff are out there checking everyone’s papers, and that’s not so.”

For the full story, see:
MARC LACEY. “One Family’s Debate Shows Arizona Law Divides Latinos, Too.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 31, 2010): 28.
(Note: ellipses added; bracketed name added to replace “He.”)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 30, 2010 and has the title “Arizona Immigration Law Divides Latinos, Too.”)

Public Employees’ Union Was Biggest Spender in 2010 Election

(p. A1) The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is now the biggest outside spender of the 2010 elections, thanks to an 11th-hour effort to boost Democrats that has vaulted the public-sector union ahead of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and a flock of new Republican groups in campaign spending.

The 1.6 million-member AFSCME is spending a total of $87.5 million on the elections after tapping into a $16 million emergency account to help fortify the Democrats’ hold on Congress. Last week, AFSCME dug deeper, taking out a $2 million loan to fund its push. The group is spending money on television advertisements, phone calls, campaign mailings and other political efforts, helped by a Supreme Court decision that loosened restrictions on campaign spending.
“We’re the big dog,” said Larry Scanlon, the head of AFSCME’s political operations. “But we don’t like to brag.”

For the full story, see:
BRODY MULLINS And JOHN D. MCKINNON. “Campaign’s Big Spender; Public-Employees Union Now Leads All Groups in Independent Election Outlays.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 22, 2010): A1 & A4.