Home > From the tavern: Innovation stories and opinions > Open-source energy-efficiency innovation 200 years ago

Open-source energy-efficiency innovation 200 years ago

In his landmark book We-Think, Charles Leadbeater tells an exciting story of open-source steam-engine development in the first half of the 19th Century.

In 1769, inventor James Watt designed a radically improved steam-engine that was 3 times more efficient than the engines used in Cornwall’s tin mines at the time. With his business partner Matthew Boulton, he protected his design with a broad patent and marketed the product successfully, making a fortune out of a royalty fee worth one-third of the mines’ energy savings. But mine-owners became increasingly frustrated by the enormity of the fee and the lack of incentive it gave Watt to further improve his design. In 1790, mine-owners tried to install ‘pirate versions’ of the engine and promptly lost in the ensuing court case. Watt and Boulton had won the case but never managed to sell another engine in Cornwall.

In 1812, Richard Trevithick and Arthur Woolf introduced a new design. It was not radically better than Watt’s but it had two key attributes:

  • Freedom of action (it was not covered by Watt’s patent)
  • Open-source (Trevithick and Woolf had chosen not to patent their design).

They installed a few engines and soon, engineers across the land were enthusiastically swapping improvement ideas through the Lean’s Engine Reporter, a local journal created for the purpose of fostering the exchange of ideas in the industry.

By 1850, energy-efficiency had been improved another 3-fold, Trevithick and Woolf had made a fortune installing, optimising and improving royalty-free engines, Cornwall had the fastest innovation rate in the world and the lowest patenting rate in Great-Britain.

Arguably both Watt/Boulton and Trevithick/Woolf made a fortune. One lesson I draw from this story is that in today’s world where innovation is happening at a much faster pace, patent are likely to be worked around sooner rather than later (not to mention that the capability to enforce patents in some key markets may be limited). Therefore a Trevithick/Woolf model is more likely to deliver sustained growth than the barricaded, customer-rip-off, one-time invention of Watt and Boulton.

There may be other lessons to draw from this story – feel free to share your views by leaving a comment.

We-Think material can be found on wethinkthebook.net.

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