Abstract: Government and the Telephone Patents in Britain and the United States, 1876-1897

Christopher Beauchamp


The early telephone industry in the United States and Britain was one of the outstanding patent monopolies of the Second Industrial Revolution. Judges drew the patent rights of the dominant companies so broadly as to give them control over all transmission of speech by electricity. This paper studies one distinctive response to the telephone monopolies: namely, that the British and American governments became involved in attacks on the proprietary status of the technology. Governments in the late nineteenth century did not purport to regulate the extent of market control conferred by ownership of patent rights. Why and how then did they attack the telephone patents? Were their actions capricious and anomalous, or did they reflect an attempt to engage with the changing relationship between intellectual property and market power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? In addressing these questions the paper's comparative perspective illuminates differences between national regimes of property rights over technology.