Monday, January 5, 2009

Samuel Slater

Today's choice for Heroes of Capitalism may not be viewed in a unanimous light by those who value this project; defining the man is, to some degree, defining one's stance on intellectual property. I'm not a competent resource for legal knowledge in any sense, but I'm likely betraying my relativism towards the topic when I celebrate a great American pioneer of circumventing intellectual property law (as it was): Samuel Slater.

Samuel Slater (1768 - 1835) was an Englishman who emigrated from England with the intent to replicate Richard Arkwright's water frame in the United States. This invention was a powerful improvement upon the textile spinning machines of the day, itself an enhancement with problematic lineage. Arkwright was one of several entrepreneurs who developed and disputed the patent rights to the water frame's predecessor, the spinning frame, as well as a competing machine called the spinning jenny. Slater's role was, by contrast, not in doubt; he was what we would call today a "pirate" of technology. He memorized the design of the water frame and sold it to a businessman in New England with whom he built America's first water-powered textile factory.

The industrial revolution in America (broadly considered) had its early genesis in textile manufacturing. American textile manufacturing was vaulted forward by Slater's mills. There's a lot to be said about intellectual property and patents of the time, but I value Slater's actions as a form of IP arbitrage. Economic protectionism, geographic limitations, and the lack of international institutions made conceptions of intellectual property incoherent between countries such as the United States and England. While there may be ethical questions surrounding his profiting without compensation for the original developers of the water frame, there can be no doubt about the importance of what Slater started with his textile mills.

5 comments:

ann said...

Funny, I was just leafing through an old notebook when I found some class notes about the process of inventing around patents.

Slater was doing something that *I think* goes on a lot: go to a country where you can produce what you want in the cheapest way.

Martin Lindeskog said...

I have added your blog to my blog list. Great inspiration! I want to mention Victor Borge as a hero of show business.

All the Best,

Martin Lindeskog - American in spirit.
Gothenburg, Sweden.

ann said...

Thanks Martin! We love tips. If you think of anyone else, please let me know.

Martin Lindeskog said...

Ann,

You are welcome!

You will find several examples in Edwin Locke's book, The Prime Movers: Traits of The Great Wealth Creators.

Do you have an email address to your blog?

ann said...

You can email each writer individually by clicking on the profiles. I guess I really should get a blog email!