Innovation in the 19th Century

I’ve just been reading a fascinating new book, Structures of Change in the Mechanical Age, by Ross Thompson (published 2009).  It’s a fairly detailed study of technological innovation from 1790 through 1865, in a range of industries.  Several histories have been written about how innovation systems emerged in the late 19th century: systems that included universities and technical institutes, research laboratories, and government agencies.  Thomas Edison’s research laboratory, with its structured approach to invention, flourished in the late 19th century.  But Thompson’s book is the first one to examine the innovation systems of the antebellum U.S.

The conclusion that I find the most intriguing is that, even in this early period, innovation occurred more rapidly in collaborative webs–networked groups of creators. As Thompson writes, “early in the development of any innovation, inventors and users formed networks that communicated technological knowledge and addressed problems….Networks sped diffusion by building on already high mobility among firms…For the economy as a whole, innovation consisted of a number of paths, each resting on distinct knowledge transmitted in different networks” (p. 315).

Thompson studied thirteen technologies that experienced significant patenting during this period: 1660 inventors from 1836 through 1865 that received over 6,900 patents.  The inventors who were networked with others were about two-fifths of all inventors.  The networked inventors averaged 2.8 patents whereas the non-networked inventors averaged only 1.9.  Many innovations occurred when inventors moved from one field to another. Machinists spread machine-tool techniques as they moved among industries (locomotives, sewing machines, and shoe machines). Engineers used canal methods to build railroads (p. 316).  I leave you with this important statement:

“The mobility of workers supported development in a wide range of sectors.” (p. 316)

18 thoughts on “Innovation in the 19th Century

  1. Keith, today most people see innovation mostly as a organazational thing, but there is something huge about this that is never noticed because it happens to one average pocketbook at a time and it is now cloging the Cycle of American Indusrtralization.

    The US patent office has prevented possibly millions of investments from being made in America with a bazaar clause that has almost no effect on large organizations, but destroys the pocketbooks, lives and dreams of Average Joe and Jane inventors.

    They call it the “Too Obvious” rejection.

    I could not believe this untill I heard it from not believe this until I saw it and heard it from several Patent Attorneys:

    The “Too Obvious” denial is simply the USPTO’s opinion “that the invention would have been “Obvious” to another inventor, who did not invent it, or its utility.

    When I finally realized this was true I checked the Construction. It was clear about this right near the beginning, article 1, section 8.

    “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”

    It says nothing about a speculation that some other person could have invented it first, if they wanted too. That is unconstitutional and extremely damaging to our economy.

    Smart investors do not invest in the device; they buy the market rights and start production. Without the patent the investor still has to develop the product but as soon as it reaches the market it is free for others to clone, so they buy the patent rights, not the things.

    So all this does is prevent new American manufacturing form opening.

    I think you will be shocked if you only saw some of these denials. Contact me and I’ll point some out to you.

    I have notified many media and now I’m going to start a petition to repeal that Too Obvious rejection as it only helps those who want no changes.

    1. You are referring to the “nonobviousness” doctrine, and those who studies patent law are very familiar with its history and its various nuances. Awareness of this doctrine increased in 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in KSR v. Teleflex, a case that challenged the application of the nonobviousness doctrine. The Supreme Court ruled that, in fact, patents were being granted too easily for fairly obvious ideas, and as a result of this April 2007 decision, it is generally believed it will be even harder to obtain (and to defend) a patent. This decision was all over the major media (Wall Street Journal, NYTimes) so it is no secret from the public.

      Whether you agree it’s a good thing or not, nonobviousness is solidly grounded in constitutional and in legislative law. The Patent Act, 35 U. S. C. §103, forbids issuance of a patent when “the differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains.” In a 1966 ruling, Graham v. John Deere Co. of Kansas City, 383 U. S. 1, the Supreme Court specified a multi-step framework for applying §103: First, determine the scope and content of previous work in the area; second, determine the differences between previous work and the new patent; and third, determine the level of ordinary skill in the area.

      Without something like a nonobviousness criteria, the problem would be a rash of people rushing to patent extremely obvious things. Imagine a patent for “washing your hands with soap”; or a patent for “a method for chopping onions with a knife.” In retrospect, most people now think that’s patent on “one-click” ordering was a mistake, exactly because it was obvious.

  2. Keith, I am not talking about washing hands with soap, or wanting a patent on the wheel, I am talking about totally fresh new industry seed ideas, that have never been seen in device or utility before that the USPO still uses this Obviousness to just bankrupt average Joes in legal fees. .

    I being a self taught structural engineer noticed that doctors and health pros still try to strengthen disabled people on tread mills and bikes, which require strong knees to work even so because they create the primary levers of the exercise at these joints.. Here is a link to the science of them: (please finish reading this first)

    I invited a method and device to convert arms and legs into solid boat like oars that are only operated by the large muscles attached to the body so most severally disabled people could finally have a very efficient way to make their bodies and hearts very strong, very fast and in extreme comfort. They either sit in water or float in a life jacket to use them.

    Enter “Disabled Fitness Device” or “Cardio Empowerment Device” at Google Yahoo or any big SE and info about my Body Oar prototypes already tops their (not solicited) lists.

    In a phone call the USPTO told me the greatest independent patent (they could think of) from an average pocketbook from the last 75 years was the intermittent windshield wiper, mine would easily surpass it for helpfulness to humanity and market value.

    Mine also has many support devices to help over 15 types of major disability, and each will need certified trainers so this would also seed a new industry with many new jobs, and investors were excited to step up and make this happen,with market rights

    The intermittent windshield wiper was a change to an existing part, so no new industry there.

    After 3 more years and 18 levels of prototype I built in my garage I perfected it. I then produced about 20 market ready sets and they have all worked nearly instant miracles for disabled people, because they almost instantly cure their bodies of atrophy and empower tremendous stamina, even if they are too old obese or disabled to walk stand or swim. Nothing else on earth can come close.

    These and many more are 100% real and I will hook you up with them to prove it if you like. So far the press won’t talk to them.

    I am just an average Joe on an average income and the USPTO says my Body Oars are too obvious because some guy in the 50’s added a handle to the board that hospitals use to keep elbows straight while IV s are running.

    He added the handle so the patient could have something to squeeze and to help pump veins for easier injection. This ruling is abusing average pocketbooks, but not industry. And I am not alone.

    At the Schwarzenegger fitness classic I spoke to many venders with unique inventions all with similer “obvious” stories and no patents!

    I also met a long time trainer of disabled people who invented a device to keep disabled bodies stable in water so she can exercise them better, and it was denied because it would have been obvious to the guy who invented a bar to tow whiles behind fishing boats!

    All this does is stop investors from getting involved, and setting up new American companies. She is now about $40,000 in the hole to attorneys and now she is again shopping for a new one.

    The USPTO gets away with this because it is on such a personal scale that anyone doing anything else but paying $400 an hour to P attorneys just sounds like a sore looser so this horrible aspect of obviousness goes unseen to people watching orgs and universities patents.

    If the idea is already in use (washing hands with soap) it should not be patented, but no smart investor would buy it anyway as it could never be implemented.

    The Patent office has never seen the utility of a device that can fully resist almost every full range body muscle motion without also sending the forces of resistance and muscle effort through the knees or elbows.

    I invented the first and only device to ever do that wet or dry and it works the same weather or not the person’s outer extremities work.

    Did you also know that according to many sites (last I read it at was the USPTO rejects the majority of independent patents and this is after a patent search showed them to be clear?

    Did you also know that at least from what several Patent Attornies told me that Obviousness seems to be the biggest reasion for independent denials.

    Add that together and you will see the missing industries that would have filled in the place of the old dieing ones. This abuse of independent innovators has cripled the nation’s industral cycle, and anllthe guys protecting industry never even know, or likely care.

    I can also show you endless evedance ot this in just their confusingstatistics.. Please respond, thanks Craig Wise

    1. Well, of course I’m not qualified to comment on any particular patent office decision. And “nonobviousness” is meant to be judged with respect to a knowledgeable person working in that area, which I am not in your case. You’re right, the only option you have then is to spend lots of money on attorneys to challenge their judgment.

      But if we set aside your specific situation for now, I believe that in general, the patent office in recent years has erred on the side of granting patents even to ideas that were rather obvious.

      I recommend that you examine the KSR v. Teleflex ruling, it’s quite readable and shows the court’s reasoning.

  3. There is something else I did not mention, the office is appearantly approving basically the same market worthless independent patents over and over. I will show you 5, and where you can find many more.

    I showed them to 1patent attorny and he made no denial yet he said they do that because no one will ever file over worthless patent rights so just approving them saves the office money of defending worthless denials.

    I know it was only one PA that told me this but I sent the Govenator of California and that state’s press a big report of physical proof about this last week.


  4. Hi Keith, I just reviewed the KSR v. Teleflex ruling, and again found zero consideration given to the Average Joe inventor, not even a thought and the US construction only mentions individuals.

    As you know almost every major consumer industry of the first 75 years of the 1900s was first seeded by an independent idea, then expanded by a group.

    Industry and universities innovate greatly but in a focused direction, an evolution of design, not originality of them. They do not invent fresh new ideas because they do not pay or train people to simply free think enough to steal everything they can from nature.

    For example the Sci Channel recently proved DiVinci’s airplane could have flown 500 years ago, but it still took to high school dropouts to seed that industry 400 years later.

    Then Orgs took the seed (Kitty Hawk) and turned it into a stealth bomber but they just could not plant that first seed. They virtually never create an all new industry, only totally independent thought does that, and now we are loosing old ones faster then new can replace them.

    Edison had 3 months of formal school and his teacher thought he was retarded. Ben Franklin had no school at all yet a slue of honorary doctorates.

    Da Vinvi’s only teacher quit because he could barely teach him anything yet was being blown away by him.

    The true inventor’s mind is not one that can accept theory science as it only ponders facts that perfectly connect, never because someone says that are fact. These are the stand alone minds that are now being abused by this “Obviousness” because they are not part of group or have no degrees.

    These are the babies that took everything apart to see how it works, that today schools drug for hyperactivity and ADD because they so board because they can only pay attention to what makes sense.

    I hate to add another demotion to you group philosophy, but it is so apparent that this vital segment is now being rejected and nobody even listens because they sound like sore losers.

  5. I’m sorry you’re having such trouble patenting your idea. Again, I know nothing about your product, but I’m a bit more sympathetic than you to the politicians, lawyers and courts who legislate and judge the patent system. It’s always going to be difficult to balance two competing demands: the need to reward individual creators, and the need to prevent the system from locking up if too many ideas are controlled and restricted for too long. There is no easy solution, no one obvious best way to design the patent system.

  6. Keith
    I just want you to ponder that the Individual inventor has not had a voice in something the Forefathers created to protect individuals. That’s why I referred to the US constitution for what to do.

    If a device or utility already exists that should be called : ”Already Exists” and thus be denied.

    What is “obvious” is simply an opinion, and when just a few people who won’t ever miss a fine meal decide how fast innovations get to come into society, they’ll never allow them to come fast enough to replace the ones that fade away. Just look around, it has already happened.

    This is why we are going from an industral nation to a service nation.

    But I do appreciate that you responded to my posts, it shows you mean what you write “Say It”.


  7. Craig,

    As a practicing patent attorney, I know first hand of the problems you are facing of absurd rejections. You might find one patent examiners comments on this subject of interest – see During this decade, the USPTO defined quality as a low allowance rate and the allowance rate is now 42% – see

    KSR is not a logical exposition of what “non-obviousness” means. Ignoring the Supreme Court’s opinions on “obvious”, the word obvious is well known and should only be used to reject patent applications that have truely trival variations in results over the prior art.

    In my opinion, the gutting of the patent system is one of the main reaons why this decade has seen almost no innovation – see

    I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

    1. In KSR v. Teleflex, patent attornies filed a friend of the court brief, siding with independent inventors. Both generally want it to be easier to get patents and easier to defend patents. Many large companies took the other side, wanting it to be easier to challenge patents. The self-interest in both cases is obvious; nothing wrong with enlightened self interest. Having no dog in this fight, my own concern is What is the optimum balance between rewarding one person for one idea, and fostering the combinations of ideas that are behind almost every successful new innovation. The nature of innovation today generally involves ten, twenty, or even more independent ideas, combined in complex ways that cannot be the province of any one person. Either it’s a company, a network of business partners, or some variant of an open source community.

      Please see my own earlier post about KSR v. Teleflex from October 2007:

  8. Keith,

    You post on KSR is interesting. Ideally, we want a patent system that optimizes the economic growth and encourages the greatest amount of innovation. Those two goals are compatible according to innovation economics (

    Our present patent system is expensive, takes forever to obtain a patent and results in uncertain title to an invention. KSR just contributes to the uncertainty of the title (validity) of an issued patent. So I think KSR fails to encourage innovation and economic growth.

    Countries that have had the strongest patent laws are both the most innovative and have the greatest technological diffusion, those countries with weak or non-existent patent systems have little innovation and poor technology diffusion. There are clearly examples of countries with patent systems that are too weak to promote innovation, but there are no examples of countries with a patent system that is too strong and therefore discourages innovation. Despite the theory of the Tragedy of the Anti-Commons, no empirical examples exist to support their theory.

    As a result, I believe we need to strengthen the rights of inventors, reduce the cost of obtaining a patent and reduce the time to obtain a patent.

    1. It sounds like you’re very familiar with the well-staked-out positions on these issues. You advocate for strong protection for individual rights, at the other extreme are the “open source/commons license” crowd. I’m in the middle. Historically, today we grant individual patent holders many more rights and for longer periods of time than we did at any point during the 19th century, a period of great innovation in the U.S. Copyright holders’ rights have grown even more than patent holders’ rights, yet no one is arguing that their reduced rights in the 19th century resulted in reduced creativity.

      You’ll probably agree with me that patent attorneys in general would be expected to advocate for stronger rights for individual inventors, because those are your clients.

      Regarding the question of IP differences among countries, this is the concern of WIPO, the U.N. agency that attempts to normalize intellectual property laws across countries. Outside of the advanced developed countries, these efforts are largely viewed cynically as an attempt to squeeze more money out of poorer countries. One highly charged issue internationally is pharmaceutical patents and high prices for drugs, for example.

      In the 19th century, the U.S. played an international role similar to China today–a relative lack of respect for IP, compared to Europe, not surprising when Europe held most of the intellectual property rights at that time. I’m not saying this is the right way to be, and not defending China today–just countering your claim that stronger IP regimes always result in greater innovation. It sometimes comes down to self-interest: the countries with the most IP benefit the most from strong IP protection (thus a chicken and egg question, which causes which?) However, I absolutely agree that there will be more innovation if creators are granted SOME rights in their creations. I don’t agree that more rights are always better, which seems to be your position, I think that if creators are granted too many rights innovation begins to become blocked. I don’t know the best solution, however; I’m not sure anyone does, and this is why the courts and Congress are still “feeling their way” with various efforts like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (largely considered to be a big mistake, although it would seem to be consistent with your position because it granted more rights to copyright holders) and with KSR v. Teleflex (which continues to be hotly debated with experts lined up on both sides).

  9. Keith,
    This story starts with obscure (official) US Patent Stats (
    • 2004–2008 1,758,165 patent apps Submitted – 660,077 Issued – 1,098,088 (2 of 3) Denied
    • 2008 – 70% Denied (well over 2/3). Yet over 50% (total) patents were issued to foreign interests.
    • USPTO may have prevented bank and private funding for over 100,000 new manufacturing firms.
    • Patent searches are required before submitting. Attorney claimed “duplication” 1-3% not 70%.
    • USPTO may deny the most marketable independent inventions by deeming them “Too Obvious”.
    • “Obviousness” rejections started after someone tried to patent a common process or device.
    • “Already exists” worked well before “Too Obvious”, however “Obviousness” was ideal for blocking out average Joes and Jane’s from attracting private funding for their industry seeding unique ideas.
    • Thousands of “industry seed patents” were issued to average Joes before the Wright Brothers landed theirs. Then the process grew from uniqueness verification to a massive book of strict regulations; we have yet to find a ‘seed patent’ approved from another average Joe in 100 years.
    • Average folks seed industries with fresh ideas; industries evolve what they already have. It is the balance between them that keeps manufacturing strong with both evolved and fresh innovation.
    • The best Average Joe ‘seed patent’ a USPTO rep could think of from the last 75 years; “The Intermittent windshield wiper”. This was an evolution of an existing switch, not a new industry seed.

    This oppression of innovation has gone unnoticed for 3 reasons. Besides Patent Attorneys, USPTO examiners and victims, few would believe the US Gov makes up countless “Too Obvious” denials to stop ‘Private Funding’ of ideas.

    Secondly, Independent victims are totally isolated; they have no idea there are thousands in the same situation at the same time, so they cannot unite. One “Too Obvious” story sounds like another “paranoid inventor” ranting about the government, so no one would ‘sense’ the scale, without also knowing these percentages. No seed patents explains why those “Inventor Submission Corporations” are called scams, they can’t get strong patents for average Joe either.

    Lastly many politicians and economists do not know there is a natural cycle (balance) for industrialization, as they have few answers as to why fewer industries are growing up then old ones dieing down. They need to plug 2 out of 3 patents being denied, and independent industrial seed patents vanishing 100 years ago, into their factors.

    A 1909 Sears catalog proves this cycle is real, as the markets for the products in it eventually stopped, proving that to keep the industrial cycle rolling and catalogs cranking, fresh innovations must freely flow to replace those that die off.

    30% patent approval and there is no more Sears catalog, and the American Auto Industry is collapsing. But not because it is not making new fresh innovative cars, but because the middle class jobs that manufacturing provided, are rapidly being exchanged for service jobs that do not provide disposable incomes for cars, luxuries or Las Vegas.

    Cranking America’s Industrial incubator up to 90% would rapidly fix many economic problems, as thousands of manufacturing firms could finally open with private investment, to create the middle class jobs that buy the world.

    The percentage of independent patent approvals, (now all time low of 30%) may be the ultimate gauge to measure how well any government protects, or oppresses, its citizen’s thoughts, freedoms, powers, words and rights.

    “Without fresh innovations constantly flowing to replace the ones that fade away the Industrial cycle stops, and its middle classes suffer the most because they become poor. “Obviousness” is a very private and quiet method to slow the flow of new innovations, middle class jobs, economies and individual rights.”

  10. Inventors can group together; there are several inventor associations that advocate for inventors. These groups wrote friend of the court briefs, along with patent attorneys, in support of the KSR patent. This battle was pretty clearly lost (how often do you hear about Supreme Court rulings that are 9-0, like KSR v. Teleflex?) but the war will continue.

  11. I looked at the KSR v. Teleflex amicus curiae and these are relevant, especially United Inventor’s Association:

    Aug 22 2006 Brief amicus curiae of Economists and Legal Historians filed

    Aug 22 2006 Brief amicus curiae of Intellectual Property Law Professors filed.

    Oct 12 2006 Brief amicus curiae of Intellectual Property Owners Association filed. (Distributed)

    Oct 16 2006 Brief amicus curiae of United Inventors Association filed. (Distributed)

    Oct 16 2006 Brief amicus curiae of Practicing Patent Attorneys filed. (Distributed)

  12. Interesting post and interesting conversation.

    Not sure if I mentioned this on a previous comment, but I think the discussion of these innovation networks fit well with the ideas put forth in Richard Ogle’s book “Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas.”

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