SYDNEY: Whether Australia is the world’s most inventive country is an interesting question to ask. But the question is whether or not we can commercialize our inventions, so that they become assets.
Pat Choate, himself an American citizen, says the Americans stole “ideas and technology from the rest of the world, without embarrassment, apology or compensation”. It was the first to develop an open culture of piracy.
In this culture of government-approved piracy, America was also the first country to treat an industrial spy - such as Frances Cabot Lowell - as a national hero. It was when Britain dominated the textile industry, and America was desperate to obtain the know-how of the Cartwright loom, which was the secret to the British success. So in 1810, Mr Lowell set out to deliberately pirate the technology.
Lowell was well educated, and well prepared. He went to England on the pretext of seeking a cure for ill health, taking his wife and family with him. The English manufacturers saw him as a potentially wealthy client and had no idea he was engaged in industrial espionage.
“Eventually, Lowell accumulated from his British hosts all the technical information he needed to build a fully integrated textile mill” says Choate, and returned to the United States where he was hailed as a hero. He went on to establish the Lowell textile mills and became exceedingly rich.
The American patent system protected its own citizens, but its laws did not apply to foreigners - so there was nothing the British could do about the theft of their inventions in America. This was how America “became by national policy and legislative act, the world’s premier legal sanctuary for industrial pirates”.
There is no doubt that the American policies of stolen patents paid off and established the basis for its immense wealth today. The US could “jump-start” all the many forms of industrialization, with stolen copyright and patents. It also had a culture of mass literacy, and could draw on skilled workers. By the middle of the 19th century, America was able to establish its industrial dominance.