Abstract: Who Benefits from Innovation? Winners and Losers in the Antebellum U.S. Patent System

Lindsay Schakenbach Regele


This paper explores winners and losers in the antebellum United States patent market. Americans have debated who benefits from patents since the first congress. Is it the independent tinkerer, the big corporation, the lawyer, the patent troll – to use a current term - the general public, or no one at all? Indeed, the policies meant to foster innovation often generate inequality.  While economic historians have quantified the impact of the early American patent system on invention rates, and have compared the effectiveness of US policies to European ones, this paper analyzes how the patent system worked on the ground. As it examines the experiences of more well-studied inventors, like federal armory employee Thomas Blanchard, and Lowell mechanic Paul Moody, as well as lesser-known figures like federal contractor Simeon North, carpet-maker Erastus Bigelow, and Paul Stimpson, an inventor of several power loom motions, it argues that corporatization happened sooner than scholars have argued, and that the place we should cast our attention is not the court room, but the patent market. As changes in US patent law over the first half of the nineteenth century made patents more valuable, the benefits they conferred became increasingly consolidated in the hands of corporate purchasers.