17th-century patent trolling

In 1685, Sir William Phips found caches of sunken treasure in Caribbean shipwrecks, setting off a burst of feverish speculation.  Between 1691 and 1693, 11 out of the 61 patents issued in England were for diving bells.  Many of these patenters apparently had no real invention to produce at all, but were simply seeking royal license to establish a diving-engine company to draw capital from credulous investors.  One of those was Daniel DeFoe, who lost 200 pounds to a treasure-diving enterprise that evaporated as soon as it had cashed in on its patents.  From Defoe’s An Essay on Projects:

There are, and that too many, fair pretences of fine discoveries,
new inventions, engines, and I know not what, which–being advanced
in notion, and talked up to great things to be performed when such
and such sums of money shall be advanced, and such and such engines
are made–have raised the fancies of credulous people to such a
height that, merely on the shadow of expectation, they have formed
companies, chose committees, appointed officers, shares, and books,
raised great stocks, and cried up an empty notion to that degree
that people have been betrayed to part with their money for shares
in a new nothing; and when the inventors have carried on the jest
till they have sold all their own interest, they leave the cloud to
vanish of itself, and the poor purchasers to quarrel with one
another, and go to law about settlements, transferrings, and some
bone or other thrown among them by the subtlety of the author to lay
the blame of the miscarriage upon themselves. Thus the shares at
first begin to fall by degrees, and happy is he that sells in time;
till, like brass money, it will go at last for nothing at all. So
have I seen shares in joint-stocks, patents, engines, and
undertakings, blown up by the air of great words, and the name of
some man of credit concerned, to 100 pounds for a five-hundredth
part or share (some more), and at last dwindle away till it has been
stock-jobbed down to 10 pounds, 12 pounds, 9 pounds, 8 pounds a
share, and at last no buyer (that is, in short, the fine new word
for nothing-worth), and many families ruined by the purchase. If I
should name linen manufactures, saltpetre-works, copper mines,
diving engines, dipping, and the like, for instances of this, I
should, I believe, do no wrong to truth, or to some persons too
visibly guilty.

I might go on upon this subject to expose the frauds and tricks of
stock-jobbers, engineers, patentees, committees, with those Exchange
mountebanks we very properly call brokers, but I have not gaul
enough for such a work; but as a general rule of caution to those
who would not be tricked out of their estates by such pretenders to
new inventions, let them observe that all such people who may be
suspected of design have assuredly this in their proposal: your
money to the author must go before the experiment. And here I could
give a very diverting history of a patent-monger whose cully was
nobody but myself, but I refer it to another occasion.

This story (as well as a general warning against taking patent statistics as a good measure of societal inventiveness) from Christine MacLeod’s “The 1690s Patents Boom:  Invention or Stock-Jobbing?”  (The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 39, No. 4 (1986)), available on JSTOR if you have it.

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2 thoughts on “17th-century patent trolling

  1. majordomo says:

    I love reading old-timey writing. The words are just familiar enough that you can understand them, but the sentence structure is weird and interesting. Apparently, back then, they had laws against stealing intellectual property but no laws against run-on sentences.

  2. Evan B. says:

    While the message about patent statistics as a measure of societal inventiveness seems quite relevant today, I believe that today’s phase “patent trolling” refers to something substantially different.

    Today’s “patent trolls” are non-practicing shell companies that extort patent settlements out of innovative companies that actually make stuff, as opposed to non-practicing shell companies that defraud investors using “inventions” that they’ve patented but never intend to build.

    I suspect the investors in Intellectual Ventures and other “patent trolls” today are doing all too well…

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