Rough Trade

Steven Shapin

  • The Man Who Knew Too Much: The Strange and Inventive Life of Robert Hooke 1635-1703 by Stephen Inwood
    Macmillan, 497 pp, £18.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 333 78286 0

If you are a scientist at an American research university like mine, you know what to do if you think you’ve hit on some technique or bit of knowledge that might have commercial potential. You go online to the university’s technology transfer office, download an invention and technology disclosure form, and fill in the details. You have to do that because all such intellectual property (IP) discovered by this university’s employees belongs to the university. If the local bureaucrats think there’s something in it, they will file a provisional patent and, after formally offering it to any government agency that funded the research – which usually declines – they will start hawking the IP about to see if any entrepreneurs or companies want to license it. Priority in your IP is protected at this stage, and you can now go ahead and publish if you wish, but eventually you may proceed to a full (or utility) patent, where property rights are wrapped up more securely, and, while IP lawyers make fortunes from litigation about who in fact owns the property, basically the matter is now in the domain of formal law. If the university does manage to license the IP, you will get perhaps 35 per cent of the royalty stream. Or, if that’s not enough for you, you can cut yourself free from academia and take your chances with the venture capitalists as an independent entrepreneur.

In 1675, Robert Hooke, professor of geometry at Gresham College and long-time curator of experiments at the Royal Society, reckoned that he had made a mechanical discovery of enormous significance and commercial potential: a balance-spring watch of such astounding accuracy and robustness that he believed it was capable of solving the problem of finding the longitude in the open seas. If, with the aid of this watch, your navy and commercial trading fleet could do that, there was little question that you could rule the world. Recognising that he could have IP with world-changing possibilities, Hooke went to see the King and asked him for a patent – that’s how you could secure your rights to IP in Restoration England, though it was more customary to work through Crown officials. Hooke gave the King an early version of his watch and rejoiced at the royal reaction: ‘The King most graciously pleased with it . . . He promised me a patent’ – though the watch never worked as well as Hooke had hoped and no patent was ever issued for his device. In the mid-1670s, a solution to the longitude problem was worth the astounding sum of £4000 to its inventor, at a time when an annual income of £50 would just about qualify you for the middle station of London society. It was a hundred years before Parliament paid out about five times that amount to the ‘lone genius’ John Harrison in 1773 for the magnificent marine chronometer that provided a working solution to the longitude problem.

The patent Hooke wanted was a type of ‘Letters Patent’ – literally ‘open letters’, sealed but not sealed up, conferring the special privilege of monopolistic production rights as a direct expression of the sovereign will. A crucial episode in the restriction of absolutism, the 1624 Monopolies Act had stripped away almost all such acts of royal prerogative, with the important exceptions of printing privileges and inventions. The King might take advice on such matters, but he could basically do whatever he liked, and indeed, in this case, he and his brother, the nautical Duke of York, took a personal interest in the accuracy of various versions of Hooke’s watch, monitoring their performance over weeks and months in the royal closet at Whitehall. Charles II had time for repeated discussions with this physically ill-favoured, socially maladroit and reputedly malodorous mechanic because he understood very well what such an invention was worth, and, accordingly, what mechanics who could deliver such goods were worth. If theoretical knowledge was not necessarily power, the King knew that skill of this sort surely was.

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