Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rail Patents

19th Century Innovation – Railroad Patents by Rensselaer Inventors

Part 1 – Background

Since I’m interested in patents, it’s only natural I’d search for local inventors. I wasn’t surprised to find lots of railroad patents from the 1800s.

As it turns out, patenting didn’t drive technological development in the golden age of rail. In fact, early railroad companies didn’t focus on patenting at all. Their business models were tied to their monopolies in land and routes, and they freely shared innovations to promote the industry. But over time, a multitude of railway mechanics, technicians, suppliers, and members of the public did obtain patents (and file law suits).

The early railroad industry faced great challenges, as its culture of open innovation clashed with this growing thicket of railroad patents. By the mid-1800’s, heavy damages from patent infringement rulings caused such an economic burden that the railroad companies formed associations for mutual legal defense against patent suits. (This has been compared to the computer industry’s onslaught by software patents in the 1990’s.)

For more on 19th century rail patents, see this paper: Organizing a Market for Technological Innovation: Patent Pools and Patent Politics on American Railroads, 1860-1900, by Steven W. Usselman, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His recent book looks excellent too: Regulating Railroad Innovation: Business, Technology, and Politics in America, 1840-1920, by Steven W. Usselman, Published by Cambridge University Press, 2002.

I’ll be posting much more on this topic, but not all at once. I’m working through almost 50 rail-related patents from inventors in Bath-On-The-Hudson, East Albany, and Greenbush, and it’s taking a lot of time. I want to compile everything online, and also provide the patents and documentation to the city historical society.

I love these gorgeous advertising images – to see more, check out The Official Railway List from 1892, which is online courtesy of Google Books.