Abstract: Arms and the State: American Torpedoes, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Origins of the Military-Industrial Complex before World War I

Kate Epstein


In keeping with President Eisenhower's Farewell Address, historians generally date the emergence of the military-industrial complex (MIC) to the early Cold War or to World War II. I argue in this paper that the essential dynamics of the MIC actually lie decades earlier, in the pre-World War I period, and that it emerged not from a particular war but from industrialization more broadly. As American torpedo development illustrates, at the heart of the MIC's emergence was a new class of naval technology procured in novel ways. Beginning in the 1880s, naval technology began to be so complex and sophisticated that neither the public nor the private sectors could research and develop (R&D) it on their own. Instead, the public sector began to invest in private-sector R&D. This investment raised new and very difficult intellectual property (IP) rights questions: where both sectors collaborated in the process of invention, which owned the resulting IP rights? Governments acted aggressively to assert their IP rights, going so far as to use anti-espionage legislation to stake their claims. This expansion of government power was precisely the sort of political-economic development that Eisenhower believed to characterize the military-industrial complex and the national security state.