I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


27 August 2016

Innovators working together

The Daily Telegraph today alerted me to a paper by an academic at Brown University in the USA, Anton Howes.

His The improving mentality: innovation during the British Industrial Revolution, 1651-1851 has a sample of 677 innovators. He found that at least 83% shared innovation, rather than keeping everything to themselves. It looks like a very interesting and important paper.

Some might have done so because of the patent system although that was weak for the period covered. It reminds me of the Isaaac Newton argument that "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Again and again products and processes are improved or cheapened by others coming up with what might be incremental changes.

Nowadays it is normal to have multi-disciplinary teams carrying out research because no one person is likely to have sufficient knowledge or skills to devise a fully workable and cost-efficient solution to a problem. Like Biro, inventor of the first workable ballpoint, whose chemist brother assisted with the ink formulation.

I haven't yet read the full paper (I only heard about it ten minutes ago) but I noticed its comment that between 1765 and 1845 patented inventions were not allowed to win prizes awarded by the Royal Society of Arts. It could be argued that by having a patent you were publicising your invention -- except that until the 1850s that was no systematic printing of patents, although some appeared in magazines, especially from about the 1820s onwards.