Invention, Technology, and the GI Bill

Article excerpt

I The Age of Invention

Thomas Savery, the English military engineer, designed and built a crude and inefficient steam engine around the year 1700 to pump water out of coal mines: his design was a large, sealed, water filled kettle heated externally to change the water into steam. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen's improved engine used steam to drive a reciprocating piston in a cylinder to produce power, but his engine was very inefficient since the cylinder had to be successively heated and cooled just as Savery's kettle. It took the Scottish inventor James Watt to build a much better engine that allowed the steam to be condensed separately from the cylinder so the cylinder could remain hot and be in constant use; he received a patent for this in 1769. A schematic of this engine is shown in Figure1.

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What was lacking in the design of these steam engines was an effective method of speed control. This problem was eventually solved by James Watt with the centrifugal flywheel governor shown in Figure 2. What then became available was a reliable engine whose output was a rotating shaft at controlled speed from which power could be drawn to drive machinery, using the most plentiful source of energy in England--coal. So, the original steam engine was developed to get at coal, and eventually coal was needed for the steam engines to power the machinery in the factories that made textiles.

The development of the steam engine is a classic case of the process of invention, from need to design to experimentation to improvement.

"The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.... In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect the details of change, such as railways, telegrams, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method itself; that is the real novelty, which had broken up the foundations of the old civilization [Whitehead, 1925]."

The English patent system provided greatest impetus to invention. Patents were instituted in the 17th century following pressure on the Monarchy of England to limit the granting of monopolies: a side effect, perhaps not originally intended, was the demise of the Closed Shop Guild whose purpose was to maintain a commercial advantage by keeping processes a secret, with the result that technical advances came slowly.

Before the patent system the Crown could remove from the general population a right they previously enjoyed and grant it to an individual. For example, the right to import salt could be controlled through a monopoly. Under democratic pressure the Crown issued 'Letters Patent' to inventors as evidence of the rights that inventor had to an invention. The system grew and became a standard part of the law of the land in the next 150 years. It was this system that was brought to the new world by the colonists. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States:

"The congress shall have the power ... to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

A patent is a grant issued by the government of a country or confederation of countries giving the inventor or his/her assigns the right to exclude all others from making or profiting from his/her invention within that country or countries. In the United States the term of this patent is 20 years from the time of application; this term cannot be extended except by act of Congress. The purpose of the time limitation is to permit the inventor time in which to profit, but to bring the invention into the public domain after the 20 year monopoly period so all can benefit. Once the patent expires, the exclusive right to make and profit from the invention is gone.

New inventions and discoveries are rarely isolated occurrences, and the process of invention described by Whitehead has been followed by the processes of design and manufacture, resulting in an accelerated development cycle and intense market place competition. …